Aaron Deister didn’t take his eyes off the basketball for a second as it clinked and clanged off the rim.
“I was just hoping for it to go in,” said the Washougal High School senior. “I couldn’t buy a bucket all night, but we really needed that one. I was just feeling it off the rebound.”
Frustration set in on the face of head coach Malcolm Estes as he watched the ball swirl around the glass.
“Can we just get one to drop?” He thought.
Just then, the ball tumbled through the net and the Panthers went wild. They had just taken the lead back from Ridgefield with 14 seconds left in the game. After erasing an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter, the Spuds were peeled and Washougal celebrated a 49-46 victory in its first 2A Greater St. Helens League game of the season.
“It was a huge win to kick off league,” Deister said. “They had their run and tied it up, but we responded well and finished strong. I think that came from our experience last year and our four years of playing together. We were going to do whatever it took to win this game.”
The Panthers came up with some big shots. Sean Guthrie hit one of the prettiest baskets of the season from beyond the half court line as time expired in the first quarter. The senior stole the in-bounds pass from the Spudders, dribbled between the defenders and gave himself some breathing room to shoot. It was a direct hit and the Washougal jungle gym roared with approval.
“He had such great court sense on that play,” Estes said. “Not only did he steal the ball, but he had the wherewithal to get by the defenders and give himself an open look. It turned out to be a big shot for us. I’m glad he got it because he’s got the range.”
Washougal also beat Ridgefield on the boards. Senior Nate Adams was relentless under the rim in his pursuit for rebounds and put backs. He finished with 10 boards in the game to go with nine points.
“Rebounds give our offense another shot. It’s a motive to get them,” Adams said. “I don’t pay attention to who’s in front of me; I just go for the ball. The football instincts kick in a little bit.”
Adams’ 10th rebound turned out to be a difference maker. Ridgefield tied the game up with 35 seconds to go. Washougal had an open look from the 3-point line and missed, but Adams was right there for the catch-and-shoot. He also missed, but Deister came up with a second offensive rebound and a third shot for the Panthers.
Three times was a charm. Thanks to the extra effort by Adams and Deister, Washougal got its game winning basket.
“If he doesn’t get the rebound, I get it and vice versa. We both have each other’s backs down low,” Adams said. “That shot going in made me feel better about the miss. I knew he could get that rebound and finish strong with it.”
The Panthers had a nine-point cushion that popped once senior Michael McElroy had to leave the game after rolling his ankle. The 5-foot, 7-inch point guard defied gravity as he rose up to block a shot by Ridgefield. He received the ball on the offense end and kissed it off the glass for two points before getting tangled up with a defender on the landing. McElroy limped off the court, but continued to motivate his teammates from the bench.
“It shows how much he means to us,” Estes said. “It hurt not having him out there, but I thought the guys really pulled through.”
The Spudders cut the lead down to three points in the third quarter, but then senior Jaden Janzter nailed a 3-pointer to give Washougal back the momentum. Ridgefield came out with a lot of focus and fire in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers saved their best play for crunch time.
“If tonight was any indication, this is going to be a tough league,” Estes said. “We were lucky to be able to play tough on defense and hit the shots we needed to. We have to remain physically and mentally tough every time we go down the court, and believe we have the ability to shut teams down.”
Washougal hosts defending league champion Mark Morris Thursday in a big game for Panther pride. Tip off is at 7 p.m.
“We don’t want to lose to Mark Morris anymore,” Adams said. “We want to play our best game against them and send a message to the league.”