March 06, 2002 11:00 pm

CORVALLIS The La Grande Tigers were six minutes away from seriously challenging the top-ranked boys basketball team in Class 3A.

Unfortunately, those six minutes came at the start of the game, when Philomath jumped to a 13-0 lead en route to its 44-28 victory at the OSAA-U.S. Bank Class 3A Boys Basketball State Championships at Oregon States Gill Coliseum.

La Grande trailed by 18 points at halftime, but coach Aaron Mills didnt change anything. After the game, he pointed to his head, referring to the mental change his players made themselves.

They just need to realize that we belong here, Mills said. When we play our game, we can play with anybody.

La Grande (15-11) plays La Salle at 2 this afternoon in a consolation quarterfinal at Corvallis High School.

The second half Wednesday was a different story than the first. La Grande came out with the kind of performance that got it into the playoffs and past a first-round game against Rainier.

You guys have nothing to be ashamed of, Mills told his players after the game. You responded, you played better, you played a lot better basketball game. When we step on the court tomorrow, we need that kind of an effort from quarter one.

A lot of teams would have rolled over and stunk, and you guys didnt do that, Mills said.

Defensively, La Grande challenged Philomath (22-3) more, even though the Warriors had a height advantage.

Our defense was better, Mills said. We came out a little scared and tentative on offense (in the first half) and it carried over to our defense. We held them to 46 (points), but we didnt get anything out of it. We let them get set up and get those big bodies in the key.

Playing at state was a new experience for most of this team, and even those players who were at the tournament last year didnt get much playing time then.

A lot of that first half was jitters, said senior Greg Schuft, who played sparingly last year but started all this season. That first half, that wasnt us.

A consistent player throughout the game was senior Tanner Mellinger, who scored a team-high nine points. Schuft had five steals, and junior Seth Pennington had seven rebounds and three assists.

Tanner was aggressive. Hes always that way. He just always plays like that, Mills said.

La Grande took solace in winning the second half, 19-17.

We got some transition points and we started getting more used to the environment, Mills said. The teams that do really well in that first game are the teams that are here year after year.

A win over La Salle would put the Tigers into a 12:30 p.m. Friday game against either Mazama or Yamhill-Carlton. The Tigers do not want their season to end today.

Last year we rolled over after we lost that first game, Mills said. This years group is more focused, more business-like in their approach to the tournament.

Said senior Tim Mollerstrom: We want more than one more game.

La Grande boys 4 5 7 12 28

Philomath 18 9 9 8 44

La Grande Schuft 1-5 0-0 2, Pennington 3-5 0-0 6, Lester 2-5 0-0 4, Mellinger 3-7 2-2 9, Bomberger 1-2 0-0 2, Nebeker 0-2 0-0 0, Tucker, Mollerstrom, MacDonald 0-0 0-2 0, Moore 0-0 2-2 2, McMahan 1-3 1-2 3, Larson. Totals: 11-29 5-8 28.

Philomath Garvin 5-14 1-3 13, Kettles 1-3 0-2 3, Boss 4-9 0-0 8, Bowman 2-4 1-5 5, Bain 2-7 3-4 7, Gilson 0-0 0-3 0, Tardif 0-1 0-0 0, Faxon, Kelley, Hinchberger 4-4 0-0 8, Harman, Gaede 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 18-43 5-17 44.

Three-pointers La Grande 1-4 (Lester 0-1, Mellinger 1-1, Nebeker 0-1), Philomath 3-7 (Garvin 2-6, Kettles 1-1). Fouled out None. Total fouls La Grande 18, Philomath 12. Technical fouls None. Turnovers La Grande 22, Philomath 12. Rebounds La Grande 22 (Pennington 7), Philomath 28 (Boss 8). Assists La Grande 8 (Pennington 3), Philomath 9 (Bowman 3).

Pat Perkins