Defense Saves Short-Handed Cougars in Star’s Absence

The Canby Cougars boys basketball team has been no stranger to serious, season-ending injuries in recent years.

In 2019, the Cougars started 9-6 and were undefeated in Three Rivers League play before losing big man Ben Bailey with a broken wrist. Canby ended that season 2-8. And in the Covid-shortened 2020-21 campaign, the Cougs burst out of the gate 5-2 before injuries to three of their five starters had them limping to a 3-6 finish.

So, head coach Craig Evans and his squad could be forgiven for feeling more than a little bit of déjà vu when the then-7-2 Cougars’ star point guard Alex Evans went down in the team’s third game of the Les Schwab Invitational.

Thankfully, Evans’ injury proved to be minor, and the Cougs would be missing his services for only one week. With their most experienced player and captain cheering from the sidelines, Canby took care of business, downing Scappoose 46-28 and McMinnville 48-44 to improve to 9-4 on the season.

Canby’s first matchup of the week against Scappoose (4-5) was emblematic of how the team has battled through adversity all season. Without Evans, senior Jacob Kirwan got the nod at the 1 and made his presence known in the early going, nailing an open 3 that gave the Cougars a 10-4 first-quarter lead.

But from the beginning, it was clear that Payton Meyers would be expected to command the offense in Evans’ absence. The senior, who sits at ninth in the state in scoring with 19.7 points per game, scored the first five for the Cougs but finished with only 10 on the night.

While Meyers managed only half his typical scoring output, he did stuff the stat sheet with five rebounds, three assists and three steals.

As it turned out, Canby would not need the usual offensive explosion from Meyers thanks to their elite-level defense that has been increasingly becoming their calling card in recent games.

This was underscored most dramatically by Canby’s defensive masterpiece on Scappoose’s home turf. The 28 points that the Indians managed were the fewest Canby had allowed in more than a decade: since their 66-26 win over McDaniel (then called Madison) on December 28, 2011.

“I think we were extremely focused on the gameplan defensively against Scappoose,” said coach Evans. “We had scouted them and the players knew where they were trying to go on every possession. We focused there because that is what we can control.”

This historic defense carried over to Friday, where the Cougars allowed only 44 in their close win over McMinnville (6-6). After giving up 62.2 points per game over their first 10 games, Canby has only allowed 42 per since Evans’ injury.

The trade-off has been clear — sacrificing Alex Evans’ mastery on the offensive end while beefing up defensively — and shows the Cougs’ adaptability and mental toughness.

Evans surely hopes this defensive effort will be sustained with the return of his point guard, who confirmed to the Current that he’d be attempting to play in the boys’ TRL opener against Tualatin.

“I’m feeling better and better every day,” Evans said, “and looking forward to returning when league starts.”

Instead, he will get at least a few more days to rest and rehab. Canby was scheduled to kick off league play Friday with a home tilt against first-ranked Tualatin (9-1), but both boys and girls contests were canceled due to Covid-19 precautions.

The next games for both teams would be Tuesday, January 18, at Lake Oswego, which remain on the calendar for now.

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