Nobody said it was gonna be easy. After all, the Imbler boys basketball team had a target on its back since early in the 2004-05 season.
Wins came easily during most of the regular season. The senior-laden Panthers were seldom challenged, usually winning by large margins.
Imbler recorded 27 wins without a loss going into the quarterfinals of the OSAA/U.S. Bank/Les Schwab Tires State Championships in Baker City. The Panthers beat defending state champion North Clackamas Christian by 13, then came from behind to defeat Ione by seven in Friday's semifinals.
Again, No. 1 Imbler battled from behind in Saturday night's championship game against third-ranked Columbia Christian. The Panthers stretched a two-point lead to double figures in the final minutes, savoring a perfect season and state championship with a 61-51 victory at a packed-to-the-gills Baker High School.
It was Imbler's first boys state hoop title since coach Chuck Vogler's 2A Panthers went 25-4 in 1984. This year's Imbler squad, at 30-0, is only the fourth 1A team in 32 years to have a perfect season. None of the other three teams had more than 25 wins.
Imbler fell behind Columbia Christian early and shot only 34 percent from the field in the first half. The Panthers stayed close with the help of hard work on the offensive boards.
The Panthers trailed by five twice in the first period. Late in the second quarter, an Alan O'Donald 3-pointer brought Imbler to within 24-23. The deficit was 28-25 at halftime.
But one of the Knights' top two scorers, Renato Aliaj, picked up three fouls in the first half. In the meantime, Jackson Tandy was effective inside for Columbia Christian. He would finish with 27 points.
"We went after them man (defense), and that worked pretty well," Imbler head coach Ken Kramer said. "Then we went to a press and that shook them a little bit."
Imbler had few opportunities for transition buckets in the first 16 minutes, since the Knights committed few turnovers and were able to get back well on defense.
John McKinnis picked up two early fouls and Imbler got the relief it needed from a sophomore.
"Mitch Myers came in off the bench and gave us four minutes of great ball," Kramer said. "He got a bucket and didn't make a mistake."
After a John McKinnis putback on a missed free throw, Cody Campbell made a steal and scored on the break. After another Campbell takeaway, McKinnis was fouled and sank two free throws for a 36-30 Imbler lead completing a needed 11-2 run.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Tanner McIntosh and O'Donald gave Imbler a 44-34 lead.
Columbia Christian would not be buried, though, as Aliaj and Joel Brown nailed 3-pointers to get the Knights within four. Imbler responded, scoring in the final seconds of the third period on an inbound pass from McIntosh to O'Donald.
A Brown trey brought CC within 48-46, then Imbler took over. O'Donald hit a 3-pointer and the Panthers took nearly a minute off the clock on one possession leading by four.
Hunt missed a 3-point try and Max Nilsson, a key board man for Imbler during the state tourney, grabbed the rebound with 2:10 remaining.
After a missed Imbler foul shot, a three-point play by Tandy cut the deficit in half.
McIntosh responded with a drive for a field goal. After a CC miss, O'Donald was intentionally fouled with 1:11 to go. O'Donald made both free throws and McIntosh followed in his own miss to push the margin back to seven, 56-49.
O'Donald made one of two free throws and McIntosh sank two of four in the final :43 and Imbler had the state title in its pocket.
"I think all the kids played really, really well. I'm real proud of all of them," Kramer said. "Max Nilsson had a great tournament, all the way through."
Kramer also had praise for Olan Fulfer and Campbell, another senior.
"He makes it (the offense) run. He's our quarterback. He stepped up really big," Kramer said of Campbell.
In the game, Imbler had 12 offensive rebounds to CC's eight.
O'Donald led Imbler with 24 points, going 8-for-13 from the field. McIntosh added 17 points and had eight rebounds. McKinnis had 14 points and eight boards.
Tandy shot all of CC's free throws, going 11-for-13. Brown had 12 points.
O'Donald, McIntosh and McKinnis were named to the 1A all-tournament first team along with Tandy and Tyler Brown of Ione.
HOT TICKET: Fans had to get to the Baker High School gym early to watch the championship games...By the Pine Eagle-Crane girls game time, the gym was packed...The overflow had to watch the girls game on closed-circuit TV projected on the wall of the auxiliary gym...Most of them were able to get a seat for the boys title game.
Fulfer 0 0-0 0, O'Donald 8 4-9 24, McKinnis 4 4-4 14, Tan. McIntosh 5 5-8 17, Campbell 1 0-1 2, Myers 1 0-0 2, Davidson 0 0-0 0, Nilsson 1 0-0 2, Tay. McIntosh 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 13-22 61.
COLUMBIA CHRISTIAN (51)
Aliaj 3 0-0 8, Hunt 0 0-0 0, Brown 4 0-0 12, Tandy 8 11-13 27, Reynolds 1 0-0 2, Lay 1 0-0 2. Totals 17 11-13 51.
Imbler 11 14 23 13 61
Columbia Christian 16 12 14 9 51
3-point goals: O'Donald 4, Tan. McIntosh 2; Aliaj 2, Brown 4. Total fouls: Imbler 13, Columbia Christian 19. Fouled out: Brown.