Trojans edge Thomas Jefferson in district playoffs
By DON HUNT
Auburn varsity assistant coach
Beating a good team three times in one season is never easy, but Auburn pulled off the feat with a 70-69 West Central District playoff seeding win over Thomas Jefferson on Feb. 17.
Senior point guard Harold Lee registered 15 points, nine assists and six steals to fuel the Trojans, who overcome a 33-point explosion from Thomas Jefferson standout guard Daryon James.
The victory at Mount Tahoma High earned Auburn a date with second-ranked and unbeaten Jackson High of Mill Creek on February 23 for a berth in the Class 4A state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.
“We’ve shown that playing in close games doesn’t rattle us,” said Auburn head coach Ryan Hansen, noting that 11 of the Trojans’ 16 wins have come by six points or less. “And we’ve stepped our game up in the playoffs, showing both mental and physical toughness.”
Auburn also has ramped up its shooting touch in the postseason. The Trojans, who twice overcame nine-point deficits against their South Puget Sound League rival, made five 3-point baskets and went 13-for-14 at the free-throw line.
Junior forward Rio Paul came off the bench to lead Auburn with 19 points and bombed in three 3-pointers. Senior post Spencer Fisher chipped in 12 points, junior guard J.J. Ruffin added 11 and senior guard LaQuell Simmons had nine.
“It’s been a crazy, up-and-down year,” said Lee, a first-team, SPSL all-star. “We started off strong, lost some games (at a Christmas tournament) in Idaho that we never should have lost but got right back on track in league.
“In the playoffs we lost the one game (to South Kitsap) but came back again. We’re pretty tough-minded. We’ve got guys who can’t stand losing.”
Auburn assistant coach
The Auburn High boys basketball team routinely flunks the eye test.
Opposing teams and fans aren’t intimidated when the Trojans walk into a gym. Three of their starting members stand 5-foot-9 or shorter and weigh less than 150 pounds. And during pregame warm-ups the Auburn players aren’t known to wear out the nets.
“We certainly don’t scare anybody when we walk off the bus,” Trojans coach Ryan Hansen says with a chuckle.
But looks can deceive. And while tape measures, weight scales and pregame warm-up shots can determine finite elements of a team, nothing can definitively measure mental toughness, heart and grit.
How else to explain the Trojans’ magical season that saw them fight to a co-championship in the South Puget Sound League’s North Division with a 12-4 record?
The Trojans tied Tahoma for the league title, but one week after the regular season ended had to relinquish their share of the crown through no fault of their own. Tahoma picked up an extra victory with a forfeit win over Kent Meridian, which had to forfeit all of its league wins for using an ineligible player. Because Auburn swept K-M, its league record remained the same. Tahoma, which split with K-M, moved to 13-3.
“In our eyes we earned a co-championship because that’s what happened on the floor,” said Hansen, whose team finished the regular season 13-7 overall. “No one can take that away from us.”
Auburn’s blueprint for success was simple: the Trojans locked down their opponents with a smothering defense and achieved what could be a school record in free-throw percentage (they hit 70 percent through the regular season).
And with eight of their 12 league wins coming by six points or less, the Trojans found a way to win white-knuckle, down-to-the-wire games.
“When you get stops and make free throws late in games, that’s how you win the close ones, and that’s what we did,” Hansen said. “Our guys get after people on defense. That speaks to our mental toughness and our fight.”
Fueling the Trojans’ pesky defense were guards J.J. Ruffin, LaQuell Simmons and Harold Lee, who led the SPSL north in steals.
Lee, Auburn’s senior point guard, also averaged 14.2 points and a league-leading 5.9 assists per game. He earned first-team, all-conference honors.
Senior post Spencer Fisher, who was a second-team SPSL all-star, averaged 13.7 points and 5.8 rebounds while junior guard/forward Rio Paul chipped in 10.2 points per game.
Paul, a transfer from Kentwood who earned SPSL, honorable-mention accolades, gave Auburn a much-needed offensive spark. He tallied 20 or more points three times during the first half of the season and was a major contributor in a 65-59 win over Thomas Jefferson on January 25 when he went 6-for-6 at the free-throw line in the final minute of play.
“Coming into the season we had a lot of unknowns,” said Hansen, noting the Trojans were projected for a seventh-place finish in the nine-team SPSL north in a preseason coaches poll. “I thought we could be competitive with everyone in the league but I wasn’t sure we could compete for a league title.
“It just shows what hard work and grit can accomplish.”
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