EAST WENATCHEE — In what could be considered the biggest game in the history of the Bridge of Sportsmanship basketball rivalry, the Eastmont Wildcats and Wenatchee Panthers played a wild and woolly classic in front of a deafening crowd.
The Eastmont players will look back on the night fondly. The Panthers might not, though they took the Wildcats to their limit.
In a battle to settle the Big Nine’s lone berth to the Class 4A state regional round of 16, Eastmont fought tooth and nail with their rivals before escaping with a 54-46 win — and the district championship trophy.
The Big Nine champions and No. 10-ranked Wildcats, who celebrated by cutting the nets for the second time in as many weeks, avenged a one-point loss to Wenatchee just 15 days prior to clinch a state regional game on the Panthers’ home floor at 6 p.m. next Saturday against an opponent to be determined.
“We wanted it real bad,” said Eastmont senior guard J.J. Jahr, who led all scorers with 18 points. “We wanted some revenge. They beat us at our house last time, so we gave it back to them.”
Jahr was a huge factor in the Wildcats’ win. While the Panthers were busy trying to contain Eastmont star guard Trea Thomas, Jahr nailed four 3s in the first half and helped his team outscore Wenatchee 21-7 in the second quarter.
“J.J. Jahr was the difference tonight,” said Thomas, who finished with 16 points. “I don’t think I’ve seen anybody step up and be as clutch as my best friend right there. He hit shot after shot after shot.”
Junior sixth man Devin Schall was another key for Eastmont — he finished with eight points and seven rebounds, and delivered an energy-boosting fast-break dunk off his own steal in the second quarter that resulted in him landing hard on his face and side from a Wenatchee foul.
“The kid’s a player,” Eastmont coach Mike Waters said of Schall. “He’s kind of the X-factor. He can create some havoc. He’s so unpredictable and so explosive.”
“He came up big tonight,” added Jahr. “He sparked the intensity, got big boards, and that dunk was just crazy.”
The Panthers, who were coming off an emotional overtime win in a loser-out game against Davis on Friday, nearly pulled off an improbable comeback. They shrunk a 12-point halftime deficit to seven after the third quarter, and Big Nine player of the year Dillon Sugg scored five of his team-high 15 points late in the fourth quarter to make it a 48-46 game.
But that’s when Thomas made his mark.
After spending most of the game either smothered by the Wenatchee defense or battling foul trouble, Thomas shot 6 of 6 at the free throw line in the final minute to keep the Panthers at bay.
“Trea Thomas isn’t clutch, he’s super clutch,” Waters said. “If ever there’s a kid that you want the ball in his hands to shoot free throws when they’re trying to foul, it’s Trea.”
Thomas finished the game 8 for 8 at the charity stripe a night after shooting 9 for 9 in a win over Moses Lake.
Despite being the shorter of the two teams, Eastmont won the rebound battle 35-27, including 17-8 on the offensive glass. That advantage helped the Wildcats (33.3 percent shooting) take 51 shots to Wenatchee’s (42.9 percent shooting) 42.
“Offensive rebounds were a huge focus for us the entire game,” Waters said. “At halftime, (the Panthers) had four offensive rebounds, and I said, ‘If they get eight, we’ve done our job.’ They got eight.”
Wenatchee coach Ron Stone was proud of what his team accomplished, even in defeat.
“It’s a disappointing loss for us without a doubt, but we’ve gotta be very proud,” Stone said. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Tonight we lost to a better team. Eastmont executed a lot better, and they wanted it more in the first half. … We got it down to two, so we had a shot. But we dug a hole early and couldn’t finish.”
Stone was complimentary of the Wenatchee veterans, especially junior Sugg, who Stone said has been nagged by a groin injury over the last three weeks.
“I’ve been coaching them for three years, and I’ve been fortunate to coach a great group,” he said. “When they remove themselves from it, they’ll see we finished 14-8, and we lost six of our games against top 10 teams. It was a great season.”
The Wildcats are ecstatic to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2008, especially considering they’ll more or less have the home-court advantage by playing at Wenatchee. They’ll play the winner of Mt. Vernon and Newport, who play on Tuesday, for the right to join seven other teams at the Tacoma Dome in the state tournament.
“It’s a dream come true,” Thomas said. “We’re not to the dome yet, but we’re almost there.”