Tualatin senior forward Jaden Steppe drives to the basket in Wednesday's quarterfinal win over Barlow. (Photo by Jon Olson)
Tualatin senior forward Jaden Steppe drives to the basket in Wednesday's quarterfinal win over Barlow. (Photo by Jon Olson)

PORTLAND – Tualatin's Jaden Steppe seemed right at home in the supercharged atmosphere of the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A boys basketball tournament Wednesday at the Chiles Center.

The 6-foot-8 senior forward, the only returning starter available from last year's repeat state champion, found his groove in the second half to lead the No. 5 seed Timberwolves to a 62-46 quarterfinal win over No. 4 Barlow. They advanced to a Friday semifinal against No. 1 Central Catholic.

The Colorado State-bound Steppe scored 19 of his game-high 29 points after the break, when Tualatin (21-6) pulled away from a 23-22 halftime lead. He showed his entire arsenal, scoring on post-ups, mid-range jumpers, turn-around jumpers and three-pointers as well as in transition, including an emphatic breakaway dunk.

After missing his first five shots, Steppe made 12 of his last 18 attempts.

“I got hot going to the basket, and then my threes started falling,” said Steppe, who hit 3 of 6 from three-point range. “It was a good third quarter. The whole game I knew it was going to happen.”

Tualatin junior forward Nolan Keeney marveled at the play of Steppe, who entered the tournament averaging 21.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists.

“He always shows up in the big stages,” Keeney said. “Playing with him is ridiculous, to be honest. He's a crazy player. He's going to do great things in college.”

The 6-5 Keeney, who returned to the lineup a month ago from a broken collarbone suffered in the state football final, provided toughness inside and finished with 13 points, six rebounds and three assists. Javier Diaz, a 6-5 junior post, added six points and 10 rebounds for the Timberwolves, who had a 40-31 edge on the boards.

Steppe and the Timberwolves are playing with chips on their shoulders. Injuries have sidelined two of their returning starters – seniors Jayden Fortier (ACL) and AJ Noland (knee soreness) – but they are intent on proving any naysayers wrong.

“A lot of teams kind of wrote us off,” Steppe said. “But we have a lot of other guys who are all just picking up their part and excelling. I don't see any other team in the state going anywhere without two of their best players. I'm just really proud of everyone, how they're playing, that we're fighting through adversity even though we don't have all our guys.”

If teams are going to underestimate the Timberwolves, that's fine with them.

“We love it,” said Keeney, the quarterback on the state runner-up football team. “Who wouldn't want to be the underdog and overlooked? No one's counting on you to win. I think we're going to respond pretty well.”

Like last year, Tualatin believes it has found another gear at the end of the season.

“Our team is in peak mode,” Tualatin coach Bubba Lemon said. “Some teams peaked early in the season and they just stayed consistent the whole entire time. Our team is still getting better.”

Barlow (19-8), which lost to Tualatin 68-55 in the semifinals last year, beat the Timberwolves 69-59 on Dec. 9 but could not duplicate the feat Wednesday. The Bruins shot 28.8 percent, including 6 of 23 from three-point range, and struggled at the free throw line, making 6 of 13.

Bruins junior guard Jalen Atkins, who averages a team-high 18.5 points, had difficulty getting open looks against the defense of seniors CJ Goodwin and Cole Javernick. Atkins made 5 of 10 shots and finished with 12 points and six turnovers.

“What they did didn't surprise me,” Barlow coach Tom Johnson said of Tualatin's defensive strategy. “We needed some more guys to step up and hit shots. Good shooting makes up for a lot of other things.”

Steppe scored 10 points in a 12-5 run as Tualatin opened a 39-31 lead late in the third quarter. Steppe added a three-pointer and a layup in the fourth quarter as the lead grew to 56-37.

“He's inside, he's outside,” Johnson said of Steppe. “He's got a pull-up, he can post up, he can make the three. He's arguably the best player in the state.”

Lemon concurred: “He's the hardest guy to guard in the state.”

Barlow's Brayden Barron and Mason Bierbrauer, 6-6 junior forwards, scored 11 and nine points, respectively. But both finished 4 of 13 from the field.

The Timberwolves can turn their attention to Friday's game against Central Catholic, a team they haven't played this season. Lemon said the only team Tualatin has faced that has similar length and athleticism as the Rams is Lakeridge, which beat Tualatin 72-69 in a Three Rivers League game.

“We had a lot of trouble with them, obviously,” Lemon said. “Hopefully we show up with our A game on Friday.”

For those doubting the Timberwolves, Steppe said that few gave them a chance to win state last year, also.

“There's a lot of disrespect going around for Tualatin and myself, so I'm really just trying to prove everybody wrong,” Steppe said.