For the Neah-Kah-Nie High Pirates boys basketball team, there really couldn’t have been a better way to start the 2018-2019 Northwest League Class 2A regular season.
By Mike Weber
For the Headlight-Herald
The No. 7 ranked Pirates (1-0 NWL, 4-1 overall) got off to a great start to their 16-game league schedule with a thrilling 47-43 victory over the Portland Christian Royals Monday at Portland Christian High School.
Playing on the road without starter Chase Dorsey and facing a tough Portland Christian squad, Neah-Kah-Nie demonstrated with the impressive win that it will undoubtedly be a top contender for the NWL title this year. Although it’s just the first of 16 league games, for third-year coach Tim Gienger and his Pirates, they have every reason to believe that they’ll enjoy some success this year.
“This was a great way to start the Northwest League season,” Gienger said. “I really expect us, Columbia Christian and Portland Christian to be the top three teams in our league. I thought they (PC) would be really good, particularly after moving down to Class 2A this year from the Class 3A level from a year ago. They are very good, they have some talented players, but we handled the pressure well. We handled everything they threw at us and we did a good job. We made our free throws at the end, which was great to see.”
In a thrilling contest played with a high intensity level that included six lead changes, Neah-Kah-Nie jumped in front first when senior Josh Elinsky (team-high 13 points) scored a basket in the lane for a 2-0 Pirates lead. The Royals (0-1 NWL, 3-3 overall) came back and regained the edge at 6-5.
“It’s a pretty big for us to come out here and get a win, because in the past, we haven’t done too well against Portland Christian,” said Elinsky. “It’s a big win for sure. We came out together and played under control for most of the game, particularly in the second half when we got the lead and held onto it. We made most of our free throws and we had lots of layups. Prior to the game, we felt like we had a good chance to win and we really didn’t have any doubt about it either.”
The Pirates then scored four straight, including a layup by senior AJ Pieper (eight pts.) to go up 9-6. A layup on a Pirate fast break by sophomore Ben Holm (eight pts.) helped Neah-Kah-Nie take an 11-8 advantage at the end of the first quarter.
“Portland Christian was a new opponent for us and so we knew coming in here it would be tough because in past years, we usually haven’t had much success against them,” said AJ Pieper. “We had to make up for being Chase Dorsey, who was sick and unable to play and so we really had to step up and take up the scoring, because he averages nearly 15 points per game. We had to pick up our rebounding as well as our scoring and I think we did a good job of that.”
Junior Kent Pieper (five pts.) and Holm each scored early in the second quarter to help the Pirates build a 15-10 advantage. A 10-0 Royals rally lifted PC in front 20-15, forcing a Pirates timeout with 2:46 remaining in the quarter. The Pirates came back and Elinsky drove in for a layup on a fast break, trimming the margin to just one point as PC led 20-19 at halftime.
The Pirates then utilized a tough zone defense to slow the Royals offense in the third quarter. A 6-0 Neah-Kah-Nie, including baskets by Elinsky, junior Eric Lambert (10 pts.) and AJ Pieper put the Pirates up 25-20 and force a PC timeout with 6:33 left in the third.
“In the second half, we came out and did what we needed to do to get the win,” said Elinsky. “I really believe that we have a team with the potential of advancing to the state playoffs this year.”
The Royals responded by scoring four straight to narrow the margin to 25-24. Neah-Kah-Nie then created turnovers and grabbed rebounds of missed Royals shots, while outscoring PC 8-2 to take a 33-26 advantage at the end of the third. Neah-Kah-Nie outscored PC 14-6 in the third.
The Pirates then capitalized on accurate free throw shooting (10-for-14, 71 percent) to build their largest lead of the game in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Eric Loza sank a free throw to help Neah-Kah-Nie build a 34-26 lead with 7:28 remaining in the contest.
PC then regained the momentum and outscored Neah-Kah-Nie 14-7 and trim the Pirates lead to just one point at 41-40. Elinsky then sank a pair of free throws to give the Pirates a 43-40 lead with 1:21 left in the game. The Royals then came back, knotting it 43-43 with 1:05 left.
“They (PC) made a good push at us near the end, but we handled things well and it’s good to see that we were capable of doing that,” said Gienger. “Getting our first league win on the road was great and we’ll take it. We have a talented team with a good group of guys and I hope that we can advance to the state playoffs this year. We’ll try to do the best we can to get to the state tournament which is every team’s goal.”
On the Pirates ensuing possession, AJ Pieper then drove into the lane and sank a layup for what proved to be the game-winning basket, propelling Neah-Kah-Nie in front 45-43 with 26.5 seconds remaining. Following a missed outside by the Royals, the Pirates gained control after getting the rebound and then Elinsky was fouled immediately. Elinsky then sank two from the line, putting the Pirates up 47-43 with 2.8 seconds left in the game.
“The key to our win was that we had a strong effort defensively and we were move well all over the court, blocking shots, getting steals and forcing turnovers,” said AJ Pieper. “We’ve all been playing together since the fourth grade, so our team chemistry is at a really high level right now. With the group of guys we have on our team, I think we’re capable of going on a deep run into the state playoffs this year. We have the potential of doing that and it would really be an awesome accomplishment if we could reach the state tournament in Pendleton this season.”
The Pirates will try to notch a third straight win when they meet the City Christian Lions (1-0 NWL, 3-4) in their next game Wednesday at home at 7:30 p.m., followed by another home game Friday at 7:30 p.m. against the Vernonia Loggers (0-1 NWL, 3-3).
Neah-Kah-Nie 47, Portland Christian 43
Neah-Kah-Nie 11 8 14 14 – 47
Portland Christian 8 12 6 17 – 43