Damian Zaines scored a game-high 18 points in Gladstone's win Friday. (Photo by Jacob Ellingson)
Damian Zaines scored a game-high 18 points in Gladstone's win Friday. (Photo by Jacob Ellingson)

GLADSTONE – Gladstone has let too many games against top teams escape its grasp this boys basketball season.

So Friday night, when visiting North Marion cut Gladstone’s double-digit lead to two points early in the fourth quarter, the Gladiators knew that it was time for them to stand tall, once and for all.

Led by senior guard Damian Zaines, No. 10 Gladstone responded with one of its best quarters of the season, pulling away for a 67-52 win over No. 9 North Marion in a battle for first place in the 4A Tri-Valley Conference.

“Especially at home, we had to let them know that the league title goes through here, and here only,” said Zaines, who scored a game-high 18 points.

Zaines led a 9-0 run that put Gladstone (13-5, 4-0) back in charge. He started it with a three-pointer, and within the next minute, he found sophomores Jude Ashpole and Thomas Tacha for transition layups Then he added the capper, a no-look pass on the break to Ashpole for a basket that made it 54-43 and brought down the house.

“At that point, with the intensity in the gym, the atmosphere, I just knew – and everyone in the arena had let them know – that it was over with,” Zaines said.

North Marion (9-9, 3-1) got no closer than eight points the rest of the way as the Gladiators closed it out by making 9 of 11 free throws. It was a disappointing defeat for the Huskies, whose six previous in-state losses all came against teams ranked in the top five of the OSAAtoday 4A coaches poll.

“Give them credit. That’s a good basketball team we played,” North Marion coach Tully Wagner said. “They shot the ball way better than we did, and they deserve to win. We look forward to another chance at them later in the season. We have a lot of work to do between now and then.”

North Marion started hot and opened a 20-14 lead in the first quarter, but the Huskies’ offense bogged down after Gladstone switched its defense from zone to man-to-man. The Gladiators went on a 17-2 run in a four-minute span to lead 31-22 midway through the second quarter.

“We held ourselves more accountable,” Gladstone coach Cody Aker said. “They do a good job moving the basketball against a zone, and got great looks, where no one was around, wide-open catch-and-shoot.”

North Marion finished 6 of 22 from three-point range and struggled on free throws, too, hitting 8 of 20. It didn’t help that the Huskies’ leading scorer, slippery 6-foot-2 junior guard Sergio Jimenez (19.6 points), struggled to find his usual driving lanes to the basket and finished with 16 points.

“They’re one of the teams that has multiple guys that are long enough and quick enough to defend him,” Wagner said. “Usually for him, that’s one of his strengths, finishing around the hoop. He didn’t finish as many of them as normal.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to them. They’re really long defensively, and they bothered us around the hoop more than we’ve been bothered in a lot of games this season.”

Gladstone came ready for Jimenez, who had a 40-point game against Woodburn this season. The Gladiators have decent size inside with the 6-4 Ashpole, 6-4 sophomore Jeremy DeVoe and burly 6-4 senior Jackson Simmons.

“He does a really good job of getting in the lane, being crafty,” Aker said of Jimenez. “We told our guys, just wall up, and he’s going to be shifty and get some stuff up, and they’re going to go. But I think we made it hard for him.”

Zaines credited the defense of 6-1 senior wing Drew Pulsipher on Jimenez.

“He had a hell of a game on No. 22. I think that’s how we got the win,” Zaines said.

North Marion also got 15 points from senior guard Jared Hauser and 13 points from senior guard Grant Henry. For the Gladiators, Ashpole and Tacha added 16 and 13 points, respectively.

Having Zaines back on the court this season has been a big plus for Gladstone. He started as a sophomore but did not play last season.

“He’s come back and been a really good senior leader,” Aker said. “Very savvy, energy guy, keeps us together. He’s always talking to people, making sure they’re in the right spots.”

Zaines said that “words can’t explain” how happy he is to be playing again.

“I missed a year due to some family issues, I lost my dad, so I had to focus on myself,” Zaines said. “But man, I’m glad I’m back. It feels great. It feels like this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now.”