ASHLAND —In a game that had win-or-go-home implications, the Raiders had the look of a team that wasn’t ready to see the nail hit the coffin on its season.
They most certainly played like it.
Thanks to a huge 19-3 run within the first five minutes of the second half, the Southern Oregon men’s basketball team turned a close game into anything but that and claimed a convincing 97-73 win over Eastern Oregon in the first round of the Cascade Conference tournament on Wednesday night.
“We’ve got a young group, but Kenny (Meyer) and I being the lone seniors, we just told them that we don’t want our season to end yet,” said SOU senior guard Ben DeSaulnier, who eclipsed the 2,000-point mark in his career in the win. “We have a group that has beat every team in this conference, so we feel confident against whoever we play.”
The quarterfinal win means the Raiders’ 2017-18 season gets to see at least one more game.
SOU will have to book its ticket to the conference tournament title game on the road, as SOU will face regular-season champion College of Idaho on Saturday night.
The Raiders fell 66-50 to the Yotes this past Friday night in their penultimate game of the regular season.
“I felt like last Friday if we had made just a decent number of shots it would have come down to the end,” SOU head coach Brian McDermott said. “We killed them here, and they’re going to want to grind it out. They want it in the 60s, but we have to get it out of there. It has to be, at least, in the 70s or maybe the low-80s.
“We probably guard there stuff as well as anybody’s (in the CCC), so for us it’s a matter of how well we attack their zone. And when attacking zones, you have to make shots at some point.”
It was a back-and-forth opening 12 minutes, with Mountaineers guard Max McCullough — who had a game-high 28 points — leading the charge. The Raiders (20-11 overall), however, used a 16-6 run to grab a 29-21 lead.
The Mountaineers (21-8) never led again after that.
Another key for the Raiders in the first half was the performance of their second unit, as the SOU bench outscored Eastern Oregon 17-0.
“When they come in and give us energy, it’s huge because we don’t have that drop off,” DeSaulnier said. “I didn’t know the 17-0 stat, so that’s huge for us and we needed that.”
But it was the second half where the Raiders took complete control.
What was a seven-point halftime lead for Southern Oregon quickly ballooned to a 56-35 advantage after DeSaulnier and Meyer hit 3-pointers on back-to-back-to-back possessions.
And not only were the Raiders hitting shot after shot, but they limited the Mountaineers to all of two field goals in the first seven minutes of the second half.
“I think the biggest thing was being able to feed off that (start to the second half), and we stayed with the lead,” said Meyer, who scored 10 of his 13 points after the break and recorded a game-high seven assists. “We’ve had times where we’ve had the lead and we’ve given it right back, so it was huge to keep a positive note going into next game and to play really hard.”
In total, SOU shot a blistering 61.8 percent from the field in the second half, as the Raiders put more of an emphasis on getting the ball into the paint after halftime.
“Right away, we got the ball inside the first four or five possessions of the second half and finished the ball easily,” McDermott noted. “For some reason, I couldn’t convince them to do it in the first half, so that spread it.”
All five Raiders starters finished in double figures in the victory, led by junior point guard Tristen Holmes’ 16-point, 10-rebound night for his second double-double of the season.
Like Meyer, sophomore forward Tate Hoffman had 13 points, while frontcourt mate Jordan Hunt added 14 points and pulled down nine rebounds.
"Tristen did a great job on (McCullough), so that allowed the other four players to focus on our matchups and stick to our things," Meyer said. "We were just more aggressive and had more energy. We were able to get hands on balls and that led to good things."
Contact Danny Penza at 541-776-4483 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @penzatopaper.