Hayden Yore had that look in his eye.
With Kelso facing off against Timberline in a winner-to-State contest to open the 3A bi-District III/IV boys basketball tournament on Kelso’s home floor, Yore was relentless. The 5-foot-11 senior guard scored a game-high 40 points to carry Kelso to a 60-50 victory and a state tournament berth.
“He was spectacular tonight,” Kelso coach Joe Kinch said. “He has trained his butt off. He’s a great teammate. He’s got the support of his teammates. In a moment like this, in a winner-to-State game… he just kind of willed us there.”
Winners of their last seven games entering Saturday’s playoff opener, the Timberline Blazers were undaunted upon arrival in Kelso. Timberline’s lineup had a size advantage at nearly every position over the Hilanders. Its length, strength and athleticism made for a difficult man-to-man matchup for Kelso, which led the home team to open with a 2-3 zone defense for the first quarter.
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The tactic wasn’t effective. Timberline (14-6 overall) moved the ball effectively and attacked the basket at will, opening a 13-4 lead early and extending it to 21-12 to open the second quarter before Yore began to assert himself.
Yore had eight of Kelso’s 10 points in the opening quarter, but he really energized his teammates and the home crowd in the final minutes of the first half when he exploded for 11 of his 21 first-half points. Yore got his baskets in a multitude of ways — off the dribble, in transition or by crashing the glass with pure determination.
The senior guard was not to be stopped.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Yore said. “I know (Timberline doesn’t) help off the strong side so I was really looking to drive it from the top and get to the basket.”
For 25 minutes, Yore and the Hilanders played the role of hunter, never in control. The Hilanders stalked their prey quarter by quarter, possession by possession before it finally found the shot worth taking.
“We told ourselves after the first quarter, ‘We’ve got to go win it,’” Yore said. “We kind of just chipped away, chipped away, and then we went on our run, (Timberline) couldn’t go on one and we got them.”
With some six minutes remaining in the contest, Mike Henderson saw the Timberline defense vacate the left side of the basket from the top of the key and he took advantage. Dribbling left, he blew by his defender for an easy, uncontested layup to give Kelso its first lead at 44-43.
Timberline managed to tie the game a few possessions later at 46-46 when junior Kadyn Ward connected on a 3-pointer to briefly silence the home crowd. That silence lasted no more than 10 seconds as Yore attacked the basket yet again, had his shot goaltended as he was fouled and converted the 3-point play to give Kelso a 49-46 lead with 4:54 to play that it never relinquished.
Ward finished with nine points for Timberline and Kenyon Simmons had 16 to lead the Blazers. Darrell Gipson Jr., a 6-foot-5 post, added 13 points as he was a problem on the low block for Kelso all night.
Despite Timberline’s relentless attack of the paint, its domination on the glass, Yore and Kelso didn’t go away. Along with 6-foot-4 junior Triton Hagdahl and 6-foot-2 senior Tyler Davis, Yore and Alex Dieter went hard to the offensive boards in the second half to create multiple second and third-chance opportunities for Kelso.
That effort paid dividends as the Hilanders trimmed an 8-point deficit early third quarter to within two points, 41-39, to close the quarter.
“Hayden created a spark for us and we never let off the pedal after that,” added Henderson who finished with 10 points as the team’s second-leading scorer. “This place really has an effect on the game, really makes us play better.”
Coach Kinch thought the team’s switch to man defense in the second quarter gave Kelso the spark it needed to find its fight in a game Timberline controlled nearly the entire way.
“We played zone in the first quarter and we almost felt like a punching bag,” said Kinch. “I think we had one steal and we went to man and played man in the second quarter. I felt that it engaged and kind of energized our team and we kind of started to chip away in the second half.”
With Yore’s one-man show on the offensive end taking a toll on Timberline’s lead and confidence, Kelso ramped up the physicality on the defensive end to fight back against the Blazers’ size advantage on the block. The Hilanders bumped, clawed and swiped at every presentation of the ball, making it difficult for Timberline to score.
The Blazers totaled 23 points in the second half and just nine in the fourth quarter.
“We tried,” Kinch said of matching the physicality. “That was a huge emphasis defensively in the fourth (quarter). The only way to get a stop is to rebound the thing.”
Next up for Kelso (16-5) is a 3A bi-District III/IV semifinal contest with North Thurston. The Rams defeated Gig Harbor 74-42 in their playoff opener. Both teams are on their way to State, but the matchup set for Mount Tahoma High School on Thursday, will help to determine seeding for the big dance.
It’s a Kelso team that, on paper, doesn’t look like a juggernaut. Yet, the more you watch them play, an intangible trait appears while defying definition. Is it hunger? Toughness? Moxy?
“We don’t pass a lot of eye tests,” added Kinch. “We’re small, but physically we’re not afraid to play a physical brand of basketball. We’re not afraid to dive on the floor… If you play as hard as you can play, most of the time good things happen.”
Good things continue to happen for this Kelso squad, no matter what the matchmakers think.