Coaches and players considered it just another basketball game for seeding purposes.
But Friday night’s physical, intense, emotional rematch reflected otherwise.
Federal Way and Auburn – neighbors, rivals and the cream of the North Puget Sound League crop – met for the fourth time this season in a knock-down, drag-out affair that left both teams floor-burned and bruised but prepared to take on any challenger’s best shot in the next round, the 4A regionals.
The No. 10 (MaxPreps.com poll) Eagles (23-4) shut down the seventh-ranked Trojans (23-5) in the fourth quarter to pull away for a hard-fought 60-49 West Central District playoff win at Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School to secure the district’s fifth seed to regionals.
Federal Way opens the regionals against Central Valley (21-2) at University High School in Spokane. Tipoff is 6 p.m. Saturday. Auburn takes on third-ranked Glacier Peak of Snohomish (23-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Mill Creek’s Jackson High School.
Federal Way and Auburn split their four games, with the Trojans taking the last meeting 64-54 in an NPSL Olympic Division tiebreaker on Feb. 3 to decide the top seed to the district playoffs.
Eagles coach Yattah Reed maintains there was no extra incentive for his team to get even with the Trojans.
“The win is important, not because Auburn beat us for the tiebreaker. They were the better team that night,” Reed said. “Tonight it just happened to be Auburn. It could have been any other team. The game was just as much important if it wasn’t Auburn.
“Everybody knows everybody. We know their style, they know our style,” Reed said of the rivalry. “They know our plays, we know their plays. We know their strengths, they know our strengths, our weaknesses. It’s more of who was going to execute down the stretch.”
Peter Erickson, the Eagles’ 6-foot-6 senior wing, was the separator in a tight-fisted second half. Erickson scored 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, which Federal Way owned 18-8. Two of Erickson’s shots were daggers – deep 3-pointers – in crunch time.
“The pace picked up and we put our foot on the gas and pulled through,” Erickson said afterward. “We definitely owed them one, but it could have been any team. … We’re peaking and getting better every single game now. We’re just going to keep going. “
Auburn led 31-28 at the break, trailed 42-41 after three quarters and went cold in the fourth, making two field goals.
The Eagles’ man-to-man defense was effective, as was their full-court pressure at times. They also made the Trojans’ main trigger, sophomore guard Maleek Arington, a priority, holding him to six points.
“They banged Maleek around a lot tonight,” said Auburn coach Ryan Hansen. “They were really physical with them, and it kind of wore him down a little bit. We ask him to do a lot for us, and he’s always up for the challenge. He was up for the challenge tonight. It was just one of those nights where we really couldn’t get it going.”
Added Reed: “He’s a player. The focus was just to make it as tough as possible, just contain him. They’re all good, young players, so we just wanted to make it tough on them, make them take tough two’s.
“They’re a tough team,” Reed said. “They’re well coached and have good players.”
The Trojans, a young team, continues to grow and will learn from the loss, Hansen said.
“You have to give them credit. They didn’t give us a lot of open looks. They contested all our shots,” he said. “But I thought our kids played really tough and dealt with a lot of adversity. I was really proud of how our kids handled themselves.”
For Federal Way, Bradley Graham scored 13 points, Jared Franklin added 12 and Caden Call had nine points.
Junior Amar River led Auburn with 13 points, senior Darrell Hester had 10 and sophomores Dae’Kwon Watson and Ryan Hansen each finished with nine points.