The La Center boys basketball team shook off a rough third quarter, and then the Wildcats shook off years of frustration.
For the first time since 2003, the Wildcats are going to the round of 16 in the state of Washington.
A.J. Myers came up big on offense and defense down the stretch, and Jeremiah Arn scored the winning points, leading La Center to a 51-49 victory over rival Woodland in a loser-out game in the Class 1A boys basketball district tournament Wednesday at Kelso High School.
The Wildcats will face Hoquiam in a seeding game Friday, but no matter, they will play in the regionals — the round of 16.
“It’s been a long time for La Center,” Arn said. “It’s pretty awesome to be a part of it.”
Woodland’s season came to an end, but not before it won 14 games — eight more than the past two seasons combined.
Myers made sure the Wildcats would live to see another day this season.
The 6-foot-7 post blocked a shot by Woodland’s Harley Bean with 5 seconds to play, securing the two-point lead.
“I knew I lost my guy. I had to find him at the last second,” Myers said. “He threw it up, I jumped, and I just blocked it. I just didn’t want to lose.”
The Wildcats would miss a free throw, but a desperation shot by the Beavers was way off target.
It was Myers who gave La Center the lead after the Wildcats went through a dreadful stretch on offense for the first 10 minutes of the second half.
Checking back into the game with just more than four minutes to play and La Center trailing by three, he quickly scored on the in-bound play. On La Center’s next possession, he scored another tough inside shot for a 46-45 lead.
Bean would respond for Woodland, but La Center went right back to Myers. This time, with the defense collapsing all over him, Myers found Arn under the hoop. Arn would make the shot as he was fouled, and his free throw made it 49-47 with 2:20 to play.
“We’ve been playing against Woodland forever,” Myers said. “They triple-team me every time I touch the ball. I just try to get it to the other guys.”
Woodland coach Aaron Shepherd was impressed.
“We have no answer for him,” Shepherd said. “He’s a scary guy to play against.”
Arn would score again for a four-point lead. Woodland’s Logan Piper got an offensive rebound and put-back basket to make it 51-49 with 53 seconds to play.
Woodland held La Center to four points in the third quarter and took the lead at the horn on a Kyle Hendrix fast-break lay-up to make it 36-35. Hendrix would later make two free throws to give the Beavers a six-point lead with 6:03 to play in the game.
La Center’s Connor Wonderly nailed a 3-pointer, though, giving the Wildcats the boost they needed.
“We’ve been winning the games we’ve needed to and playing as a team down the stretch,” said Myers, who led La Center’s balanced attack with 12 points.
Arn agreed, adding that the Wildcats never panicked.
“We knew we were still in it and that we were going to come out and win,” said Arn, who had 11 points. “We were just encouraging each other to get back on ‘D’ and play hard.”
Wonderly also had 11 points for the Wildcats.
La Center coach Jon Schroeder told his players to expect struggles early in the season but if they kept working things would click for them by mid-January. The team had injuries in December and needed time to find its place, the coach said.
Now, the Wildcats have their first winning season in 10 years and a trip to the regionals.
Woodland just missed on its chance to continue a magical season. The Beavers went 0-20 two years ago, then 6-14 last year. This season’s team went 14-10.
“It’s great for the kids and the community,” Shepherd said. “Most of our guys are back next year.”
The game was close from start to finish. La Center led most of the first half, but the Beavers would make six 3-pointers in the half to keep the Wildcats from getting too far away from them.
Hendrix led all scorers with 13 points. He also had 11 rebounds for the Beavers. Troy Flanagan finished with 12 points.
LA CENTER 51, WOODLAND 49
WOODLAND — Ryan Sturdivan 0, Tanner Huddleston 11, Logan Piper 4, Henry Warndahl 4, Harley Bean 5, Kyle Hendrix 13, Troy Flanagan 12. Totals 18-49 (7-21) 6-13 49.
LA CENTER — Connor Wonderly 11, Dylan King 0, Matt Braaten 8, Wyatt Aguirre 9, Jeremiah Arn 11, Zach Brown 0, Levi VanTol 0, A.J. Myers 12. Totals 24-63 (2-12) 1-8 51.
Woodland 14 13 9 13—49
La Center 19 12 4 16—51