March 04, 2002 11:00 pm

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

Before you have digested Wednesday mornings breakfast, the La Grande Tigers boys basketball team will be playing its opening game at the OSAA-U.S. Bank Class 3A Basketball State Championships.

Thats the reward for beating Rainier at home Saturday in a sub-round playoff game. Oh, and the Tigers will play No. 1 Philomath in that 8 a.m. game at Oregon State Universitys Gill Coliseum.

Thats no problem, however. La Grande is ready for both the breakfast game and the tough opponent.

All the pressures off now, La Grande coach Aaron Mills said. We were pretty tight in that game Saturday because it was a do-or-die. Going into Philomath, I dont think anyone expects us to win, except us. What do we have to lose? Theres no reason to be uptight.

The boys will be joined at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Gill by the girls team, which won its second-straight Greater Oregon League title and will play Philomath.

The Tiger girls, who finished third at state a year ago after a quarterfinal upset win over then-No. 1 Marist, prepared for their breakfast club games by practicing early in the day.

Last year, the first two games, we were prepared because we practiced for the last two weeks at 6 in the morning, girls coach Isaac Williams said.

Weve been practicing at 6 all week, Mills said. It was brutal to start off, and toward the end of the week we just got into a groove.

The body doesnt move as fast in the morning, Mills said, and thats the biggest adjustment. Players also have to adjust to waking up just two hours before tipoff and eating breakfast with enough time to digest it.

The boys hope to improve on last years two-and-out showing at state. To do so, theyll need to continue doing what theyve done well toward the end of the season: strong shot selection, communication on defense and transition and execution on the halfcourt offense.

Because were undersized weve really been working hard on our set plays to get guys open shots, Mills said. Our regular offense has gotten better because people cant key on our pattern.

The girls have been emphasizing fundamentals in practice, Williams said. The defense played well at the end of the season and the fast break is coming around, he said.

What will benefit the Tigers is their experience. This is the third year in a row La Grande has been to state, and the last two years have seen the team bring home an eighth-place trophy at the Class 4A level and a third-place trophy from the smaller-school Class 3A tourney.

When you go to the tournament, the atmosphere is so different. And our kids are experienced in that so they wont be nervous, Williams said.

With the other girls basketball state tournaments finished, the girls realize theyre in elite company.

I think its fun that they understand that theres only 16 teams in Oregon thats playing basketball right now and were one of them, Williams said. We just want to go over there and play good basketball.