Tualatin plays championship, falls to nationally ranked team
Amidst the snow and in between holidays, the Tualatin boys’ basketball team followed through on an invite to the Les Schwab Invitational (LSI) Tournament – a five-day, 16-team, four-game consolation bracket – and made quite the impact.
The LSI invites the top teams throughout the state and even a few from across the country to showcase the best in a week-long competition. In the past, LSI has seen current NBA stars in their high school careers including Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Ben Simmons and Kevin Love. After organizers abandoned last year’s tournament in the midst of high school in-person cancellations, the bracket was revived to be played this holiday season in its 25th year with the eighth-ranked team (ESPN) in the country, Link Academy, as the headliner participant out of Missouri, and Tualatin’s first participation since the inaugural 1996 tournament.
“I’ve been watching this since I was in like sixth grade,” Malik Ross told Tualatin Life. “It’s a big crowd. Adrenaline is going, you know, little nerves rushing.”
The Wolves have started the season as the top-ranked team in the 6A-division going undefeated through six games before the tournament. Leading the pack is Ross, scoring nearly 20 points per game (PPG), followed almost equally by Noah Ogoli who scored 18.5 PPG in LSI.
This year’s roster of 13 happens to be built upon seven dual-sport football athletes who finished second in the Dec. 4 afternoon 6A football state championship. This left little room to prepare for the basketball season with its season-opener the same night. Although none of the seven dual-sport players were in attendance that opening game, Tualatin took the win nonetheless, and the complete team returned four days later where they delivered a dominating 90-30 win against Jefferson.
“We got a bunch of workhorses,” Ross said. “I think the transition from football to basketball – the conditioning aspect of it is a little tough to transition to. With football, we obviously made it to the championship, we know what it takes to win. I think getting your shot, your rhythm, dribbling, and your skillset back was tough, but it helps you in a way, you come back more physical.”
Tualatin wouldn’t take this tournament for granted, and on the floor of host-school Liberty High School in Hillsboro in the first round, they took down the ninth-ranked 5A Churchill Lancers 78-49.
Churchill snagged the lead for the first three minutes of play, but the Wolves swung back to end the first quarter 20-7, with Ross contributing 10 points.
After four quarters, Ross scored 15 from the field while going 4-for-4 on the line, with Ogoli on 17 points and Jaden Steppe adding 12. As a team, Tualatin shot 30-63 from the field and 12-15 in free throws.
But this was only the beginning. “Obviously, you want to play the best competition, and Link Academy – I know how good they are, but competitors want the best competition, that’s what I’m looking forward to. We know Lake Oswego. We know how good of a team they are and how good their coach is. We’ve struggled to beat them the past three or four years, so it’s going to be tough, and it only gets harder looking at the bracket.”
Tualatin followed the round-one win with a 77-67 victory against Lake Oswego – a feat that hasn’t been repeated since the 2018-19 season – and a 76-44 blowout with Beaverton in the semifinals. All that remained was the championship, and an expected foe awaited Tualatin’s attendance on the night of Dec. 30.
Link Academy had no trouble perusing through the first three rounds, knocking down every opponent by an average of just over 31 points. After all, they had an excess of talent. The Lions were 19-0 on their season and have four of the top 60 players in the country with an average player height of a not-so-short 6’5½ with Felix Okpara (ESPN 59) at 6’11 and Tarris Reed Jr. (ESPN 33) just one inch less. Jordan Walsh (6’7) is also the seventh-ranked player in the country.
The championship game started just as anticipated. Link gained an early 11-0 lead in the first three minutes and extended that margin to 17 to end the first half 42-25. Any chance at a win seemed lost on the crowd, but opening the second half, the Wolves still had victory in mind. After all, Tualatin didn’t want to scuff up their 9-0 season record.
At first, Josiah Lake scored from deep, then all-tournament Ogoli contributed five more points along with Kellen Hale to cap off the three-minute turnaround with a layup. The score brought to 46-35 – an 11-point game – and they pushed even further.
With 2:40 in the third and a shot from Ogoli in the paint, the Wolves drained their deficit to seven points, 49-42. Unfortunately, this also marked Tualatin’s peak of the night with Link Academy holding a firm grip on the championship title and winning with an 83-60 margin.
Ogoli scored highest of the game with 24 points on 10 baskets, contributing five boards and five assists.
But this game wasn’t necessarily about winning, says Hale, but seeing where the squad stacked up against national and state talent. After three dominating wins and putting up a fight in the championship, that stance remains a bit clearer for the team as they head into the regular season and eventual playoffs.
“We came out here with nothing to lose,” he said. “We wanted to do as good as we could. I mean, obviously, it’s not the outcome we wanted, but we got the chance to come out here and compete with them and that’s what we wanted to do – to see where we were at, and I think we did a good job at that.”