By Ben • Ben Schorzman • 

Defense for Mac still taking shape

It left many wondering, “How did that happen?”

After the game, McMinnville coach Willie Graham wondered the same thing. The Grizzlies (5-8, 1-3) played tight with the Tigers for most of the game, and the score was tied at 32 with 3:58 left to go in the third quarter. Then Tigard pulled away.

“I thought, ‘Man, how did it get to there that quick?’” Graham said. “We have to do a better job defending teams for four quarters.”

McMinnville plays at 7:15 p.m. today at Forest Grove (9-5, 2-2).

McMinnville’s defense has been one of its best weapons under Graham, and the Grizzlies’ ability to frustrate teams and grind out wins will, in large part, rest on their defense. Tuesday, fans saw the best and the worst of that. The Grizzlies went stretches where they played brilliant defense, then they would follow that by giving up two uncontested layups in a row.

After the game, Graham told his team that he felt there were little things that added up vs. the Tigers. He said he didn’t feel like they were tougher than Tigard.

“I don’t know,” Graham said. “We didn’t do a good job of defending things we knew were coming.”

The Grizzlies allowed Bryan Berg to score 20 points and guard Evan Garrison to score 12, including a stretch early in the fourth quarter when Tigard extended its lead where Garrison and Berg combined for 13 straight points.

“Garrison is very good,” Graham said. “He does a good job of running his team. Didn’t force things. Very impressive.”

For the first half of the game — before things got away from the Grizzlies — Mac hung tough because of its defense. The Grizzlies jumped out to a 5-0 lead and held Tigard scoreless for the first 2:30 of the game. The squeak of sneakers sounded as players closed out quickly on shooters. Mac players moved in unison as they moved across the floor, sliding their feet to beat a man to a spot.

Late in the first quarter after senior Blake Egli tied the game with 3-pointer, Egli raced to the other end and found his man. He played up in the Tigard player’s face, his hands outstretched and touching the offensive player. It was just enough contact to frustrate the player but not enough to elicit a foul call. In other words, perfect defense.

On the sideline, every defensive rotation by the Grizzlies and good play drew clapping from their animated coach. Every misstep drew a heavy sigh or frustrated glance to the scoreboard.

The Grizzlies forced 13 turnovers.

“We were pretty solid and forced turnovers,” Graham said. “Then at the end of the day, they were still getting lay-ins.”

Mac pulled ahead 24-21 late in the first half, but the Tigers closed on a 4-0 run, including a buzzer-beating layup by Garrison that was uncontested. It was moments like that which drew Graham’s frustration. In a low-scoring game, each possession becomes critical. Every loose ball becomes prized. Each rebound is a high-value target.

Late in the third quarter, Tigard started pulling away. Connor Olson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to open an eight-point lead. Graham called a timeout.

“Those 50-50 balls,” Graham told his team, “we have to have them.”

The Grizzlies continued to put pressure on the Tigers, but once Tigard extended its lead to 12, Mac started to take more chances on defense.

“They can shoot,” Graham said of Tigard. “They can play. … They never look hurried.”

Focus. Hustle. Toughness. These are three things Graham talks to his team about, senior Blaine Parker said. The Grizzlies display this in the way they ball hawk on defense. They may be overmatched at times, but rarely are they outworked, especially on defense. With 5:51 left in the third quarter Tuesday, Parker got a steal and took it full court for a layup. He followed that up with another steal, and he found an open Nicholas Autencio under the basket. If defense is all about hustle, Parker is the epitome of that.

“Blaine is super consistent,” Graham said. “He’s doing what he needs to do. Just plays hard.”

Defense defines teams. Typically, the better teams play the best defense. The Grizzlies aren’t there yet, but their defense keeps them in enough games. Graham said consistency will help his team get past their current slide (Mac has lost four of its last five).

“We have to guard for 32 minutes consistently,” he said.

Mac will try tonight at Forest Grove.

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