By David Bashore
Herald sports editor
Hermiston Junior guard J.J. Ross dropped 23 points and hauled in seven rebounds as Hermiston eased to a 79-54 win over Pendleton on Thursday night.
The Bulldogs (15-4, 5-3 Intermountain Conference) rode a 22-4 scoring run in the first and second quarters to post the winning margin after a nervous opening period.
Beating Pendleton was gratifying for Bulldogs head coach Larry Usher, who has never lost to the Buckaroos in his nine encounters, but he seemed a tad disappointed with the way the game unfolded.
"I didn't think we played particularly well, and we didn't take very good care of the basketball," Usher said. "That's something we struggled with at Summit and Crook County, and here as well. Transition baskets are pretty, but we threw a lot of those away (Thursday)."
It was a matchup of an undersized and perhaps undermanned Pendleton squad against perhaps the most athletic team in the conference in Hermiston, and for the better part of a quarter it seemed as though the plucky Buckaroos were up for the task.
"I look down at the opposite bench and give (Pendleton head coach Stu Clem) a lot of credit," Usher said. "They've had some unfortunate events and some of their better players haven't come out. But we know this isn't the Pendleton team we'll see in the future, and it's not the Pendleton team we've seen in the past. There might be bigger teams and more talented teams in the IMC, but I don't think there's a team that works harder than Pendleton does."
Tucker Whitten led Pendleton with 21 points on the night.
Trailing 14-13, Hermiston turned on the jets and embarked upon their game-winning scoring binge.
Ross was the key contributor in the first half, scoring 16 of his 23 points before the intermission, including something he hasn't done in a while shooting the three-pointer.
"I think what J.J.'s added to his game that he hasn't really done too much is step behind the three-point line and knock down a shot," Usher said. "What usually happens with guards that don't always shoot the ball very well is that they try to go to the basket all the time, and I think that's where J.J. has evolved his game."
Ross was the featured scorer on the night with his game-high point haul, but junior forward Aaron Allbee was the player who put his stamp on the game.
All by his lonesome at the offensive end of the floor, Allbee received a baseball pass in the key and tested his recently-sprained ankle by throwing down a dunk with no run-up whatsoever, a move which brought the capacity crowd to its feet.
"Somebody makes a big play every game," Allbee said. "I'd never (dunked from a standing start before), so it was pretty cool."
With the result all but settled, tempers flared briefly in the fourth quarter when Hermiston forward Levi Smith appeared to take a forearm in the mouth from a Pendleton player.
Rather than let it boil over, however, both rival teams showed remarkable poise and allowed cooler heads to prevail.
Usher applauded both teams' collected manner and said that there was more bark than bite to the Bulldog-Buckaroo basketball rivalry.
"There's no bad blood between Hermiston and Pendleton players or coaching staffs," Usher said. "I think sometimes players get caught up in the hype of the rivalry, but there's more of a rivalry in the stands than on the court. A lot of these guys on both teams are friends."
Hermiston travels to run-and-gun minded Madras on Tuesday, a team they beat 103-76 earlier in the season.
David Bashore can be reached at dbashore@ hermistonherald.com.