A Peninsula Pirate for less than a year, Jason Gamblin still couldn't keep the grin off his face in the midst of cheers from the Port Angeles crowd.
"No better place to finish," said the freshman from Herriman, Utah, just moments after polishing off a playoff-clinching win against one of the top teams in the conference.
Gamblin had 16 points and 13 rebounds as the Pirates (10-6 in conference play, 13-12 overall) knocked off Shoreline 94-87 on Feb. 24, securing a spot in the NWAACC tournament as the No. 4 seed from the North division.
Despite having their own No. 1 seed heading into this weekend's NWAACC finals in Kennewick, Shoreline wasn't about to hand Peninsula a free pass on this night. The Dolphins (13-3, 19-5) showed exactly why they're the No. 7-ranked team in the conference, blistering the nets from the perimeter and forcing the Pirates to settle for medium-range jumpers.
Alfred Miller-Soukasen, who led Shoreline with 22 points, sank six three-pointers in the game and helped his squad surge ahead by halftime, 42-34.
"We just needed to relax," Gamblin said. "We came out strong (in the second half)."
Trimming the lead to 58-53 with less than 14 minutes left, the Pirates got a 14-0 surge they rode to victory. Ryan Rutherford, the Pirates' leading scorer with 24 points, led the charge, hitting long-range jumpers and snagging steals from a full-court press Peninsula rarely uses.
When the shots weren't falling, Peninsula's big men - Gamblin, Christian Manzanza and Jordan Collins, in particular - scooped up the misses for easy buckets. (Peninsula had 29 second-chance points in the game; Shoreline had two.)
Manzanza finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four blocked shots in his final P.C. home game while Collins added 11 points and three rejections. Fellow sophomore Colton Worley added 10 points.
Down nine points, a relentless Shoreline squad got big baskets from Miller-Soukasen and Jesse Vaughn (20 points) to keep the pressure on Peninsula, but fueled by a raucous hometown crowd, the Pirates finished with a flourish. P.C. got rim-shaking dunks from Gamblin and Manzanza on back-to-back plays while Rutherford attacked the basket for score after score and finally finished the Dolphins off at the free throw line.
Showing its strength and hustle, Peninsula out-
rebounded Shoreline 47-27.
"We competed more, (we had) more energy," said Worley, a Chimacum High School graduate who hit a pair of key long-range jumpers in the second half.
Back to the tourney
Last season, the Pirates missed the NWAACC tournament for the first time since the 2002-2003 season - Stewart's first as head coach.
"This is our March Madness," Stewart said. "I'm just happy for them. We had some tremendous efforts (tonight). I hope we can get that kind of stuff there."
Peninsula opens the NWAACC tournament in Kennewick at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 6, against Tacoma (14-2, 22-3).
The Titans lost just one game this season by more than three points, a 82-71 loss to Green River.
Darious Walker, a 6-foot 5-inch post from Federal Way, leads the Titans with 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and hits 62 percent of his shots from the field. Anthony Enriquez, a 6-foot 2-inch guard from Lakewood, leads the squad with 3.4 assists per contest and scores about 13 points per game.
The Titans don't shoot particularly well from the three-point line (30 percent) or the field (44 percent) but rebound well and score nearly 83 points per game.
The winner of Saturday's game plays the winner of the Big Bend-Mount Hood game at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 5. Losers of those two games play each other in the consolation bracket at 10 a.m. that Sunday.
In eight seasons, Stewart has led the Pirates to six NWAACC tournaments. The school's best finish in that span has been a pair of third-place finishes, in 2003-2004 and 2006-2007.
Team Conf. Over.
Shoreline 13-3 19-5
Whatcom 11-5 16-9
Bellevue 11-5 18-7
Peninsula 10-6 13-12
Seattle 9-7 14-11
Edmonds 7-9 10-13
Skagit Vly. 5-11 11-14
Everett 4-12 6-18
Olympic 2-14 4-19
Reach Michael Dashiell at firstname.lastname@example.org.