By David Krueger Herald Writer
The Jackson boys basketball team traveled to the prestigious MaxPreps Holiday Classic in Southern California to see if it could compete with some of the best teams in the country.
The Timberwolves haven’t just shown they can compete with the best, they’ve proven they are one of them.
Jackson won its first three games at the tournament — the latest a 53-52 overtime victory over Long Beach Poly on Saturday — and now finds itself in the championship game. The Timberwolves face Capital Christian of Sacramento, Calif., at 8:40 p.m. today as they try to become the first winner not from the state of California in the tournament’s 11-year history.
“I think it’s been a good tournament,” Jackson head coach Steve Johnson said. “I don’t want to come across like I’m satisfied or I don’t want to win the championship (but) it’d be hard to say that we haven’t accomplished at least the first goals that we had of playing against really good teams and competing.”
Jackson’s road to the championship went through another Pacific Northwest team (Portland’s Columbia Christian), as well as two California teams: Harvard-Westlake and Long Beach Poly. Jackson is averaging 58 points per game in the tourney and is outscoring its three opponents by an average of 10 points per game.
The Timberwolves also are coming off one of the most exciting games of the tournament, winning Saturday on a last-second 3-pointer by Brian Zehr.
“It was just unreal,” Zehr said Sunday. “I didn’t really know what to expect. Marcus (Blake) was dribbling down the court and I tried to get open and apparently I was. … I just couldn’t believe it to be honest. I was in shock. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s been our whole teams’ dream, ever since we were in the feeder program, to do something like that when we’re older.”
Heading into the tournament Jackson had played just two games, significantly fewer than the average squad in the 24-team Invitational Division. The Timberwolves (5-0 overall) are now up to five. Capital Christian (14-2) has played 16.
“I think it would have been nice to have more games, but at the same time we’ve probably stayed healthier in some cases,” Zehr said. “Games would have been nice. It’s hard to dive into games against really hard competition. Practice is a lot different than a game situation. You can’t get a feel for what’s going to happen until you play the games.”
Click here to read MaxPreps preview of tonight’s game.
Capital Christian is coming off a 47-43 semifinal win over Westchester (Los Angeles), the tournament’s defending champion. The Cougars’ feature six seniors and four players who average better than 10 points per game.
Capital Christian will be without one of its top players. Senior Nifae Lealao, who has committed to play football at Stanford, is away from the team to participate in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio. However, the Cougars still feature Michigan-bound forward D.J. Wilson and senior guard Uchenna Iroegbu, the younger brother of Washington State freshman Ike Iroegbu.
Unlike in previous tournament games, Jackson had a day to rest prior to today’s championship.
“It’s been so nice having the day off and be able to relax and heal everything up,” Zehr said.
While in Southern California, Jackson has had to deal with another foe besides their difficult opponents: the flu. Johnson said Blake, who had the game-winning assist to Zehr Saturday night, was sick before the trip and that Zehr started feeling ill Sunday.
“I’m holding my breath that he’s going to be able to play and be effective,” Johnson said of Zehr.
Johnson said various Timberwolves players have stepped up in the MaxPreps Holiday Classic.
Senior guard Dan Kingma has scored in double digits all three contests — including 31 in Jackson’s quarterfinal win over Columbia Christian. Jackson also got strong contributions from sophomore Sam Saufferer, as well as Zehr.
“We have had to call on some other guys and Sam’s definitely stepped up off the bench and given us some solid minutes,” Johnson said. “We’ve had several guys that have stepped up at various times during the week.”
But the key for Jackson remains senior Jason Todd, the reigning Gatorade state player of the year, who has had a double double in each of the three games.
“I told him last night, ‘Hey, I just appreciate your will to win and your spirit,’” Johnson said. “The intensity, it’s not something I take for granted. He has a will. He’s just a great leader and a warrior in the way he approaches it.”
Regardless of how tonight’s game turns out, Jackson has made a name for itself.
“I think we definitely are taking people by surprise,” Zehr said. “I think nobody thought we had a chance against those teams.”