Selah boys basketball team falls in CWAC title game, plays in regionals Friday

Update: Selah won its CWAC tournament semifinal over Ellensburg on Feb. 15 before falling to Toppenish 85-77 in the district championship game Feb. 22 in the SunDome. Junior Noah Pepper scored 39 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in the loss. The Vikings will play Renton on Friday, Feb. 28 at Davis High School in Yakima, in the regional round of the Class 2A state tournament.

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One thing is for sure going into this weekend’s CWAC boys basketball district semifinals at Central Washington University: no one knows who will come out on top.

Top seed Toppenish rolled to a 17-1 record in league play, but the Wildcats were tested on more than one occasion, winning two games by a single point and two in overtime before eventually falling to third-place Prosser on Jan. 31.

Second seed Selah (14-4) gave Toppenish two of its biggest tests, losing by five points in each of their meetings, while Ephrata — tied with Prosser at 13-5 — nearly toppled the Wildcats on Jan. 14 before falling in double overtime. East Valley (10-8), Grandview (9-9) and Ellensburg (7-11) also provided formidable tests for the league’s upper tier, forcing the top seeds to approach the district tournament with caution.

“This league is wide open, and I’d say we have as good a chance as anyone of winning,” Selah coach Tim Garza said. “I think we are right there with Toppenish, so the main thing for us is to be mentally ready. We just need to relax and play our game.”

The Vikings are riding a four-game winning streak and have won eight of 10 heading into their semifinal game against the winner Wednesday’s Ellensburg-Ephrata matchup (results not yet available). Toppenish will play the winner of East Valley-Prosser on the other side of the bracket, with the winners facing off Feb. 22 in the SunDome.

The semifinal losers will meet for third place and will then compete in cross-over games with the Great Northern League for a right to play at regionals. The 2A state tournament will be held March 4-7 at the SunDome. At this point in the season, Garza believes his players are ready for anyone standing in their way.

“I think having some tight, close games toward the end of the season has helped us grow,” Garza said, referring to three-point wins over Ellensburg and Prosser and narrow losses to Toppenish and East Valley down the stretch. “Losing to East Valley (on Jan. 25) probably helped us because we were able to come back and win a couple more close ones after that.”

Junior Noah Pepper has been the undisputed team leader this year, earning his second consecutive league MVP award. He helped lead the Vikings to the state title game last season and is primed to deliver for them once again this postseason.

“Noah raises the level of all our guys, but he also gives everyone confidence because he’s so good on offense,” Garza said. “He scores most of our points, but he’s also a rebounding machine. He does so many things for us that it’s hard to not have him on the floor.”

Fellow starters John Zambito, Cooper Quigley and Teegan Garza also earned the coach’s praise for their consistency on both ends of the floor. He also pointed to the steady improvement of junior Matt Quincy and senior Malachi Kinlow.

“Matthew has really gotten better this season,” coach Garza said. “He’s finishing well and has great hands inside when we’re trying to pass out of a double team. We’ve been finding him down low and he’s been finishing. That’s been a huge lift for us.”

Kinlow, meanwhile, has established himself as the Vikings’ sixth man, becoming a rebounding force on both ends of the floor. He can also knock down shots inside and out, the coach said.

“Malachi is probably our most improved player this season,” Garza said. “He’s a great rebounder, but he can also hit shots from the perimeter and play power basketball when we need him to. We’ve asked him to increase his role this season and he’s really accepted the challenge.”

Garza knows the Vikings (14-6 overall) will need everyone to contribute if they are going to knock off the likes of Toppenish, Ephrata and Prosser — not to mention any potential foes in the cross-over and state regional rounds.

And while the roster is less experienced than last year’s state runner-up team, the program has been in this position in each of the past five seasons. Garza believes his team is in a good position to carry that tradition forward.

“The boys understand that, at this point in the season, there are no gimmes,” he said. “Everything has to be earned. That attitude starts at practice, and our guys have shown me and the coaching staff that they can raise their intensity. We’re feeling pretty good about our chances right now.”