After winning nine of its previous 12 games, the Nestucca High Bobcats boys basketball team was hoping that their success would continue in a Feb. 6 Northwest League matchup against the Portland Christian (PC) Royals. The Bobcats (7-7 NWL, 12-10 overall) had confidence going into the game too, particularly since they beat the Royals 73-59 at home Jan. 13.
The No. 21 ranked Bobcats, guided by first-year coach Justin Hartford, had a chance to win while trailing by just five points with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Royals (5-8 NWL, 9-13 overall) got revenge though in the second matchup between the two squads, winning a close game 57-52 last Thursday at Portland Christian High School.
“We almost got the win and it was a real learning experience for the kids,” said Hartford. “This is a tough place to come and play at and they (PC) are a pretty good team. I knew we would have to fight hard to get a win and we only lost by five. I was happy with our effort and it was nice seeing the kids in position to have a chance to get the win, but it’s too bad we lost. Hopefully, we can take the positive things out of this and have it carry over through the remainder of the season so that we can keep our momentum going.”
The Bobcats had a great start as junior wing Tyler Hagerty (17 points) had a hot hand as he fired in consecutive three-point field goals to lift Nestucca in front 6-2. Nestucca senior guard Mitchell Richwine (20 pts.) also connected on a three pointer, to put the Bobcats up 9-4. Richwine also contributed with a four-point play as he sank a three pointer, he was fouled and he dropped in a free throw, putting Nestucca up 13-8.
“We tried to get the win, but sometimes it’s tough when you’re playing on the road,” said Richwine, who scored a season-high 33 points in the Jan. 13 contest against the Royals. “Our mindset going into every game is that we feel like we can win. We came out here maybe feeling a little overconfident, since we beat them earlier in the season. We feel like we can finish the season strong by getting a few more wins before the district playoffs. We’re hoping to win our district games and sneak into the state playoffs.”
Portland Christian scored six straight to go on top 14-13. A free throw by Hagerty knotted the score 14-14 after one quarter. It was a close, seesaw contest throughout the first half, which included a total of eight lead changes. Portland Christian outscored Nestucca 8-6 in the second quarter to build a 22-20 lead at halftime.
Midway through the third quarter, Nestucca took its final lead of the game at 27-26 following a Hagerty free throw. PC came back with a 7-0 run to build a 34-27 advantage after three.
“We came out firing well offensively and we stayed with them pretty much for the whole game but we just couldn’t catchup to them at the end,” said Hagerty. “We tried to come back, but it was just too late at the end. I feel like we gave it a pretty good effort and we played very hard. Prior to the game, we felt confident, particularly since we did so well the last time we we played them. I’m excited about districts and it’s going to be so much different than last year. We’re starting to come together as a team, we’re passing well and we’re looking forward to the playoffs.”
PC extended its advantage to double digits in the fourth quarter at 41-31. Nestucca senior forward Ben Hurliman (eight pts.) sank a three-pointer and he followed by making two free throws, trimming it to 41-36 with 4:18 left in the game. The teams traded baskets for the remainder of the game as it remained a five-point margin at the end.
In an area rivalry matchup, the Neah-Kah-Nie Pirates (4-11 NWL, 6-15) won 53-48 over the Bobcats Monday at Nestucca High School. The Pirates duo of Eric Loza (17 pts.) and senior Eric Lambert (17 pts.) helped lead Neah-Kah-Nie to the victory. Nestucca senior guard Mitchell Richwine scored a game-high 25 points.
Nestucca has won 10 of it’s last 15 games, including a 57-46 home win Feb. 4 over the Vernonia Loggers (2-12 NWL, 5-16). In that contest, the Bobcats trailed 13-9 after the first quarter and then responded by recording a come-from-behind victory.
Nestucca took control by outscoring Vernonia 18-9 in the second quarter to build a double-digit 31-18 halftime advantage. Vernonia came back and narrowed the margin to 41-38 after three. Led by Richwine (12 points) and junior wing Tyler Hagerty (11 pts.), Nestucca regained the momentum in fourth, outscoring Vernonia 16-8 to get its second victory over the Loggers this year.
The Bobcats have clinched a Northwest League District playoff berth for the first time since 2018 and they’ll face a yet-to-be determined opponent in a first-round playoff game Feb. 18.
“Since this is my first year, I didn’t really know what to expect because I didn’t know any of these kids and they were not familiar with me either,” said Hartford. “There’s been lots of ups and downs and lots of good, positive things (a seven-game win streak) that have happened too. We beat a team that was ranked No. 1 in the state (a 55-53 win over Knappa Jan. 17), but then we turned around and lost a game that we should’ve won (a 59-57 loss to Faith Bible Jan. 21). We’re hoping to finish things out on a positive note by the end of the season.”
Prior to districts, the Bobcats still have two games remaining on their 16-game NWL regular season schedule. Nestucca, which is in fifth place, will face the No. 4 ranked Knappa Loggers (13-2 NWL, 21-2) in the their next contest today at 7:30 p.m. at Knappa High School. Nestucca won at home 55-53 in an earlier matchup this season on Jan. 17. The Bobcats conclude the regular season with a 7:30 p.m. Valentines Day home game against the Faith Bible Falcons (3-11 NWL, 4-18).