PORTLAND -- After an evening of spectacular athletic achievement, high-voltage tension and enough drama to make Shakespeare quit the business, Grant’s boys basketball team still had one thing left to do Saturday night:
Put a lid on Marcus Tsohonis. The host Generals knew the Jefferson Democrat star was going to get the ball for the last shot, and there was no room for error in a pivotal 6A Portland Interscholastic League game at the Marshall Campus.
It was the first meeting between top-ranked Jefferson (6-5, 2-1) and No. 6 Grant (7-4, 3-0) since last year's 6A final, in which Grant pulled out a one-point win despite going 0-3 against the Democrats in the regular season.
This time, the Generals held an 83-82 lead by a couple of fingerprints — courtesy of Aaron Deloney’s free throw with 9.6 seconds to go — and both teams huddled up for the final showdown of a night full of them.
Jeff coach Pat Strickland did what everybody in the packed house knew he would do: He told whoever got the inbounds pass to get it to Tsohonis and for the gifted senior guard to “make a play.”
On the other end of the floor, Grant coach Robert Key was calling for a “Code Red.”
“It’s a decoy,” he said. “Once Marcus got the ball — and we knew their best player was going to get the ball — I wanted my two top guys to double-team him.”
The two top guys were Deloney and Ty Rankin, who had combined for more than half of Grant’s points for the night.
“I told them to not let him split you,” the coach continued. “What I really wanted was for him to give up the ball.”
Tsohonis got a pass and charged upcourt. He was expecting a screen that never came. Deloney and Rankin closed in, with LaQuandre Taylor close by.
“Then I tried to split them,” Tsohonis said.
But the gap was too narrow and the ball trickled away. Deloney grabbed it and heaved it toward the other basket. The whole building lit up with the reflection of light off his smile.
“I knew when I got the ball,” Deloney said, “that they couldn’t get us. I knew it was over.”
It was the last act of a special night for Deloney, the 6-foot-1 senior guard and the unofficial glue pot that keeps the reigning 6A champion Generals together.
Deloney scored 30 points against the Democrats, but that was just a snapshot of what he meant to the Generals’ victory. He played all 32 minutes, had the ball on nearly every Grant possession, dished out eight assists and committed only one turnover.
But the key to Grant’s whole night was how, when the Generals fell behind by 10 points at the end of the first quarter, he rallied them back into the game — almost all by himself.
Grant had closed to within 25-19 when he went off for eight points in a span of 58 seconds — two free throws and back-to-back three-pointers — while the Democrats were coming apart.
When Deloney dished to Taylor for an NBA-range three-ball 3:38 before halftime, the Generals were up 32-25, and the Democrats never fully recovered.
“A.D. is a group magnet type of guy, personality-wise,” Key said. “He’s such a leader. Ty and him have led by example since day one. It’s a mind-set: Play together, play for each other. They know that it takes all 13 of us to win a game.”
Maybe, but if No. 1 doesn’t show up on Saturday night, the Generals don’t have a chance.
Some of Deloney’s assists were NBA stuff — like the time in the third quarter when he drove for the basket, drew three Jeff defenders, then whirled in the air and fed Erik Fraser for an uncontested three-ball. Or the play in the beginning for the fourth quarter when he drove for the same basket in much the same way, then flipped the ball behind his head to Taylor for a chip-shot layup.
Any other team might have folded its hand and gone home, but these are the Democrats, and this is the Grant game — which is as much of a celebration of city basketball as the city can put on.
The Democrats trailed by as much as seven points in the second half, but Tsohonis is pretty much uncontainable — he had 25 for Jeff — and when Jalen Brown (three three-pointers) and Keylin Vance (five) started throwing them in, too, the Democrats were back in the game.
Tsohonis’ layup with 42.4 seconds left tied the game at 82-82, and all the drama was left to play out. Deloney was fouled on a scramble for the ball with a hiccup under 10 seconds to go, and hit the first one. The rest was on the defense.
Now, Grant is saying, people will take the asterisk off last year’s 63-62 state championship game victory over the Democrats. In that game, Tsohonis didn’t play.
“They had some extra motivation tonight,” Deloney said. “Most people were saying that they were the better team. I heard the word on the street all the time.”
Key deliberately downplayed the payback angle.
“Honestly, I never even thought about it,” he said. “Hey, we lost in double OT when they had Marcus, and I don’t wish injury on anybody, but we won the state title when they didn’t have him.
“Hey, if A.D. goes down I can say the same thing — let’s play, and let the better team win.”
Rankin had 17 points and Taylor 13 for the Generals. Vance (15), Nate Rawlins-Kibonge (13) and Brown (10) his double figures for Jefferson.