If any Yakima players snickered at Aaron Neary's pink hightops and shoelaces when he walked out onto the floor during pregame introductions for Saturday's Media Classic at Pasco High School, Neary didn't take long to give them something else to worry about.
Neary wore pink as a tribute to a close friend's mother who's battling cancer, but the 6-foot-3 power forward from Hanford put an extra emphasis on power during an 89-81 win over Yakima, collecting 21 points and 14 rebounds to help give Tri-Cities its first Media Classic sweep since 1999.
"Ahh, the Media Classic spell," Neary said, referring to Yakima's string of four straight wins and 14 victories in the last 15 games before Saturday.
"This feels great," he said. "I thought we had them last year (a 99-96 Yakima win). We had a lot of juniors then, so we had some of those guys coming back."
Rolando Garcia, a first-year men's coach at Columbia Basin College, picked up his first Media Classic victory, a feat accomplished by only three other Tri-Cities boys coaches since the series began in 1994. Yakima leads the series 18-4.
But Garcia needed some help from Neary, who signed to play football at Eastern Washington next fall. After resting the burly post in the third quarter, Garcia kept Neary in for the entire fourth quarter. The move paid off, as Neary collected seven points and nine rebounds in the final frame.
"I know some people were unhappy about that," said Garcia, who was approached by some fans after the game regarding the decision to keep Neary in at the expense of other players. "If they want to blame somebody, they can blame me."
But Yakima clearly had no answer for Neary, who made his presence felt immediately after the opening tip with two offensive rebounds and five points as Tri-Cities took a 10-5 lead in the first 21/2 minutes. Chiawana guard Buddy Walter added a 3-pointer from the top of the key a minute later to make it 13-7, and it looked like a possible rout.
But Davis guard Jackson Marquis keyed a 10-3 Yakima run, getting a lay-in off a David Trimble steal and later canning a 3-pointer in transition to tie it at 16 with 2:13 left in the quarter.
Tri-Cities pulled ahead 33-24 midway through the second quarter when Reggie Clinton buried a pair of treys from the right wing, and Neary helped built that lead to 45-32 at the half, scoring seven points over the final 3:31 of the second quarter.
"There's not much more to say about Aaron. He took up a lot of space on the block, and he took advantage of some mismatches inside," Garcia said.
But Yakima cut into that lead in the third quarter as Tri-Cities hit just 5 of 25 shots during the frame, including their last 14 over the final five minutes. Yakima made its move with a 24-8 run, as Joel Yellow Owl and Tanner Urlacher combined for 13 during the spurt that tied the game at 61.
Jonathan Janis led Yakima with 11 points, and Yellow Owl finished with nine.
Clearly, someone needed to give Tri-Cities a boost, and that someone turned out to be Walter.
The 6-3 senior was unstoppable in the fourth quarter, scoring 16 of his game-high 22 points over the final 9:40, including three from long range.
His trey from the left wing midway through the quarter sparked a 14-4 run that put Tri-Cities back in control at 84-73 with 3:35 remaining.
Walter was thrilled to put his team in a position to win. His sister, Danielle Walter, made her mark on the Media Classic for three straight years before moving on to play at Gonzaga, but now he's got one to call his own.
"I'm 1-0 in the Media Classic," he said. "We've got a lot of good athletes. Any one of us can light it up at any time."