By David Bashore
Herald sports editor
Madras Junior swingman Sam Grogan returned from a four-game suspension to help guide Hermiston past Madras on Tuesday in a barnburner, 93-83.
Grogan, who missed the prior game against the White Buffaloes a 103-76 Bulldog win in Hermiston dropped in 25 points and pulled in 10 rebounds, while fellow junior Aaron Allbee kicked in 23 points and 10 boards.
Hermiston (16-4, 7-3 Intermountain Conference) benefited from the return of Grogan, which bolstered a lineup already chock-full of athleticism.
"I thought Sam played very well," Hermiston head coach Larry Usher said. "He was ready to go after the suspension. We talked before the game, and I think he knew he has something to prove to a lot of people."
Grogan and senior point guard Ramiro Alatorre who finished with 13 points and 15 assists took control of the game down the stretch and turned what was a closely-contested game into a double-digit victory in the fourth quarter.
"We knew we were going to be in a position to score some lay-ins," Usher said. "Sam used his athleticism to score some baskets."
The deficit hovered between one and two points for most of the first three quarters.
After one period the score was 20-19 in favor of Hermiston, and Madras took a 40-38 advantage into the locker room at halftime.
That margin was trimmed by a point in the third quarter, though Madras carried a 67-66 lead into the final period.
It was then that Hermiston took over and began to show its team quality and effort, and a 27-16 final period margin iced the win.
"I think that this shows that our coaching staff is turning the corner after five years," Usher said. "That was probably the hardest our team has competed."
The win vaults Hermiston back into second place in the IMC standings, and gives them a precious head-to-head tiebreaker over Madras after the earlier win.
Two teams on the heels of Hermiston and Madras, Summit and Crook County, split with the Bulldogs earlier this season.
With the pair of games with Madras out of the way, Hermiston can look forward to game-planning for more conventional and routine defenses and offenses to face in their final four games of the regular season.
Despite that, Usher believes that the unique challenge the White Buffaloes presented to the Bulldogs this year has helped the team improve.
"I think getting ready for a team like Madras has made us a better basketball team," Usher said. "You can see we're not nearly as nervous with the all, and we've been taking much better care of the ball."
Hermiston has its final three home games of the season in a five-day stretch beginning on Tuesday when they host The Dalles-Wahtonka, a team that has yet to win a conference game this season.
Looming large on that schedule is a weekend against Bend and Mountain View, a pair of games that will almost certainly determine the Bulldogs' playoff fate.
Mountain View currently has a 1 1/2 game lead over Hermiston in the conference standings, but Bulldogs still have a mathematical chance to win the IMC championship.
Should Hermiston win the rest of their games, they would win the title if Mountain View incurs a third loss and Madras finishes third in the standings.
Despite the door to a conference title remaining cracked open, albeit only slightly, Usher has his team focused on making sure they don't stumble down the stretch and ensure they make the playoffs.
"Yeah, if Mountain View were to lose another game and we win out ... we would win the title and that would be nice," Usher said. "But we're making sure that the kids are doing what we need to do to make it to the playoffs."
David Bashore can be reached at dbashore@ hermistonherald.com.