TACOMA – When you get to Friday at state, everybody can play. Everybody belongs there. The underdogs have been weeded out, the titans come out to play.
Especially in the boys 4A bracket.
No. 1 Union was undefeated champion of the Greater St. Helens League and cruised through districts – winning four games by an 18.75-point average – before edging No. 8 Gonzaga Prep by two in a regional. The Titans then handled No. 10 Olympia 69-56 in a quarterfinal on Thursday.
Union, led by the GSHL player of the year and Washington’s “Mr. Basketball,” 6-foot-5 senior forward Tanner Toolson, was beating just about everybody up.
Toolson got his – but Central Valley got theirs. And served notice to the rest of the state that the Bears mean business.
Noah Sanders led CV with 16 points, sophomore Dylan Darling added 14 – including hitting 6 of 7 from the line in the fourth quarter – and No. 4 Central Valley knocked off the Titans 63-55 at the Tacoma Dome in a State 4A semifinal.
CV (24-2) earned an appearance in the State 4A championship game for the first time since 2012, where it will face third-seeded Mt. Si at 3 p.m. Saturday. It’s the third straight title game with a Greater Spokane League member represented.
Toolson finished with 26 points on 8-of-19 shooting for Union (26-1).
“That’s a really tough, tough ballclub we just played,” CV senior guard Jayce Simmons said. “We beat some really good teams, kind of putting everybody on notice right now. We got back-to-back champions last two years, we got us this year. GSL is looking pretty strong.”
“We just had to convince the kids, look, press clippings and all this and that,” CV coach Mike Laws said. “We play pretty damn good basketball, too.”
CV’s 6-10 junior post Gavin Gilstrap finished with 13 points.
“We really had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Gilstrap said.
Laws isn’t sure if Darling is old enough to know what pressure means.
“Yeah, you know, maybe,” he said. “I think he just rises to challenges. I mean, he’s a gym-rat kid that just loves to play. He’s played on a lot of high-level AAU and all that. It’s just a competitive (spirit) so I don’t think he worries about all that.”
CV hit 12 of 15 from the line in the final quarter as Union was forced to foul.
“I knew it was good. I didn’t know it was that good,” Laws said. “Just finish strong and not not get panicky. This team believes in what we’re doing and each other.”
CV led by eight after three quarters. Toolson hit a 3-pointer to start the fourth, but Gilstrap followed his own miss with a putback. Josh Reznick slammed one home and made it a four-point game, and Toolson’s sweeping reverse layup left CV clinging to a 46-44 lead with 5:36 to go.
Darling couldn’t get a runner to go, but he got his rebound, scored through traffic and hit the free throw for a five-point cushion.
Toolson dunked with authority, but as they did late in the quarterfinal, the Bears fed Gilstrap deep, and he earned a trip to the line. He converted both to make it 51-46 with 2:19 left.
“When we get a little rowdy going on, our comfort level is get into the big guy,” Laws said. “Good things usually happen.”
Simmons had a steal and went the distance for a seven-point lead with 1:46 left. Union was left to foul, and Sanders and Darling both converted a pair and the lead was 11 with 60 seconds to play.
All that was left was to hit a couple of more free throws. Then celebrate.
“They’ve been sleeping on us all year.” Sanders said. “I think this is just a serving size of what we are.”
Toolson ended Union’s first possession with a two-handed slam to the delight of the metropolitan-area fans. Mason Hill hit a couple of 3-pointers and Union went up 11-5.
But All-GSL wide receiver Carsen Raab came of the bench, sparking CV. He hit a 3-pointer to make it 13-12, then fouled Toolson hard – but not cheap – and Toolson remained down momentarily. Perhaps still reeling from the contact, Toolson missed both free throws.
Darling gave CV its first lead at 20-19 with a layup in traffic.
Gilstrap had a layup and CV went up by five. Union held the ball the last 29 seconds of the half. Toolson hit an off-balance 3-pointer with Darling draped all over him and CV led 26-24 at intermission.
Ryan Clay’s 3-pointer early in the third put CV up 33-27. Sanders hit a floater and with an 8-3 run the Bears had an eight-point lead with 5 minutes left in the frame.
Teagen Hoard scored from the top of the key and Sanders hit a 3-pointer to boost the lead to double digits with 3 minutes left in the quarter. The Titans scored four points at the line, and Darling’s floater with heavy contact gave CV a 43-35 lead heading to the fourth.
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