LA GRANDE — La Grande sophomore guard Devin Bell said the Tigers boys basketball team is essentially beginning a new season as it looks to right the ship following a 1-10 start.
They certainly started it the right way — even if the outcome was in doubt in the final moments.
“We were 1-10, and then we come out and start league off with a win, and I think it’s just a start to a new season. I think it’s going to be a great season,” Bell said.
Bell led the Tigers with 17 points Friday, and La Grande opened Greater Oregon League play with a 56-52 home win over Baker in a game that saw the Bulldogs rally from 18 points down in the fourth quarter.
The Tigers were the aggressors much of the night, and for the first three quarters they played their best basketball of the season. Bell led a barrage from 3-point range with five triples as La Grande connected on eight 3s on the night. The Tigers, who never trailed, took their largest lead just 20 seconds into the fourth quarter at 47-29 on a layup by Brady Hutchins.
“Obviously against your rival you want to come out and play your best basketball, (and) tonight we did for the first three quarters,” La Grande coach Mark Carollo said. “We were really on, we shot the ball well, defensively we kept guys in front of us, (and) we took care of the ball.”
Then what seemed like a certain victory nearly got away from the Tigers.
The Bulldogs scored seven points in less than a minute, getting within 47-36 on a field goal by Gabe Gambleton. The Tigers briefly restored order to push the lead back to 15 on Cristian Mendoza’s floater, but another Gambleton jumper and a 3-point play by Caden Long cut the margin to 51-41 with 4:30 to play. Gambleton’s pullup jumper made it a six-point game with 2:57 to go, and Baker was down only three points, at 53-50, on a Riley Flanagan layup with 57 seconds remaining.
“I just told the kids that we need to play a little bit harder,” Baker coach Jebron Jones said of the message to his team to get the Bulldogs back in the game. “I think they stepped up to the challenge in the fourth quarter, but basketball is four quarters, and we didn’t do our job the first three.”
The Bulldogs got within 54-52 on another lay-in by Long, and they had a shot at the lead with about 15 seconds to play, but Jamison Rigueiro’s open 3-pointer was long, and La Grande’s Kaleb Myer — who had just missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to leave the door open — connected on the game-sealing free throws with 8.9 seconds to go.
“I was a little bit nervous, but I’ve made so many free throws, and I was confident it would go in,” Myer said.
The tight finish was unexpected after La Grande had dominated most of the night. The Tigers raced out to a 13-3 first-quarter lead on a Justin Jenner 3-pointer. Bell caught fire in the second quarter with three 3-pointers, including an important trey with about 15 seconds to play in the half that stopped a Baker rally and gave the Tigers a 29-24 lead at the break.
“They played harder than we did (through the first three quarters),” Jones said of the Tigers. “(They) outhustled us, wanted it more, and then by the fourth quarter, it was too little too late.”
“You gotta give them credit for sticking in there, battling all the way through,” Carollo said of Baker. “I knew they weren’t going to just lay over, and we got tight. We got tense (but) at the end of the day we were still able to finish.”
Jenner and Myer joined Bell in double figures with 13 and 12 points, respectively, to help La Grande end a seven-game losing streak.
Long, who had 10 of his team-high 16 points in the fourth quarter for Baker, also had 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals. Gambleton added 14 points, and Flanagan had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Baker outrebounded La Grande by a sizable 38-27 margin, but committed 21 turnovers while La Grande finished with just eight.