A late run by the Diamondbacks provided some tense final few minutes for the Indians, but they were up to the challenge ‑‑‑ just like they were in both regular season showdowns with their district rivals.
Preston's boys basketball team absolutely shined during the middle two quarters and led by as many as 17 points in the fourth. Century clawed its way to within seven points with less than one minute remaining, but the Indians slammed the door and prevailed 73-64 in a pivotal 4A Fifth District Tournament game on Thursday night at Preston Gym.
Preston is now one victory away from punching its ticket to the 4A State Championships and emerging from an extremely competitive district. The Indians will host the winner of the Century-Pocatello elimination game next Thursday night. Whoever reigns supreme in that contest must beat Preston twice to claim the district's only bid to the state tourney.
All three programs from the district have been ranked in the top five in both 4A polls throughout the lion's share of the season.
"We told (our players) there were two roads to get to Boise and this road was win tonight and you only have to win one more," PHS head coach Tyler Jones said. "If we would have lost, we would have to win three in a row next week, so this puts us in a good spot, but we still have work to do."
Thursday's showdown was a battle of attrition during the first 10 minutes of action, which featured seven lead changes and four ties. Fortunately for top-seeded Preston, it was able to seize the lead for good with a 11-0 run. Cole Harris had three beautiful passes that resulted in assists during that clutch stretch by Preston, which culminated with a Gabe Hammons tough drive in traffic that gave the hosts a 28-18 advantage.
"Cole's a special player," Hammons said. "He knows where the ball needs to go and he gets it there, and everyone starts rolling. Cole is really an essential player for our team. ... He reads everything really well, knows how to get people open and when you have a player like that, it makes a big difference, it makes it a lot easier for people to score."
Century (15-7) scored the final four points of the quarter to pare its deficit to 28-22 heading into the locker room. That's as close as the second-seeded Diamondbacks got, though, as the Indians (16-6) netted the first five points of the third quarter.
Preston got red hot from the perimeter in the third quarter as it buried five 3-pointers, including three by Hammons, who exploded for 14 points in the quarter. Freshman Druw Jones drained a contested 3-ball seconds before the buzzer sounded to give the hosts a commanding 52-38 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Preston went off for 24 points in the third stanza.
"When we get hot, I think it's kind of like a chain reaction," Hammons said. "We've got some good 3-point shooters. Treyger Shumway knocked them down. Druw Jones, coach Jones' (young son), he came in and made some big shots, and they all made a big difference, so it was really nice to get everyone involved."
Preston's advantage ballooned to 17 points on two occasions in the final quarter ‑‑‑ the first on a three-point play by Harris, and the second on a Brecker Knapp layup.
To their credit, the D-backs refused to fold as they went on a 10-0 spurt, capped off by a Bruin Fleischmann trey, to pull to within 60-53 with 3:50 remaining. However, that's as close as Century got, even though Preston missed six free throws during the final two minutes.
Not only were the Indians very sharp offensively, they received contributions from several athletes. Five Preston players finished with eight or more points and eight scored at least three points.
"Great atmosphere," Jones said. "The crowd was great, the students were great and they really gave us a boost again tonight. Every time we'd get (a comfortable) lead, they'd make a run, but I thought our kids kept their composure, kept fighting and we were able to hold on."
Hammons netted 16 of his team-best 18 points in the second half for Preston, which got 13 points from Knapp, 12 from Braden Hess, 11 from Treyger Shumway and eight from Jones. Preston's bench, led by Shumway and Jones, accounted for 22 points. Rhett Larson also played some valuable minutes off the pine for the Indians, especially when Hess got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out midway through the fourth quarter.
"Especially with Brecker in foul trouble, Braden in foul trouble, we needed something from a few guys coming in and I thought the bench gave us a boost," Jones said.
The Indians have now won seven consecutive games and three of those have come against the D-backs.
Titan Fleischmann, Century's powerful 6-foot-6 forward, poured in a game-high 24 points for Century, which got 12 points from Emmett Holt, 10 from Bruin Fleischmann and eight from Issac Panttaja. Titan Fleischmann has signed to play football for Montana State.
PIRATES 70, BEARS 46
Likewise, it was a memorable night for West Side, which is now one win away from its third straight 2A Fifth District Tournament title. The top-seeded Pirates (19-4) sparkled at home as they outscored the second-seeded Bears (13-9) 36-13 during the middle two quarters to turn Thursday's much-anticipated showdown into a blowout.
The two teams split during the regular season and Bear Lake limited West Side to 44 and 49 points, respectively. Why were the Pirates so effective against the Bears' vaunted matchup zone defense this time around?
"We executed pretty well," WS head coach Tyler Brown said. "Our offense, we got some wide open looks and we knocked them down tonight. At their place, I think we made two (3-pointers) and here we got 10 tonight, so the difference was we shot the ball pretty well and Bear Lake didn't. But I thought our kids played pretty good defensively after that first quarter. I think (Bear Lake) got to the basket anytime they wanted early on, but we buckled down and kind of played a little bit better, and in the second half especially played a little bit better defense."
It was another balanced effort offensively for the Pirates, who got points from 10 different players. Bryler Shurtliff led the way with 19 points, followed by Blaize Brown with 17 and Ryan Lemmon with eight. Brown drained four 3-balls for West Side, which had five different players knock down at least one trey.
Having homecourt advantage certainly aided West Side, which shared the regular season district title with Bear Lake. The Pirates have only lost once this season in Dayton and it was to Marsh Valley, a legitimate 3A state championship contender. West Side avenged that loss to the Eagles last month on Shurtliff's basket at the buzzer.
"We had a lot of people here tonight," coach Brown said. "It felt normal and it felt good. It was nice to be at home."
West Side will return to action next Thursday at a neutral court. The Pirates will await the winner of next Tuesday's elimination game between Soda Springs and Bear Lake. That team must beat West Side twice to capture the district tourney championship.
Regardless of what happens, the Pirates have punched their ticket to the 2A State Championships and will be aiming for their second consecutive trip to the title game.
"It's a big relief and that's what I told the boys tonight, I said, 'whoever wins tonight gets to go to state, and if you lose the next game's going to be way tough,'" coach Brown said. "We've been in that game ... a few times and we've lost it, and being the better seed too. ... You don't want to ever go to that game."