Auburn boys are just fine playing the underdog | Basketball regionals

Auburn's JJ Ruffin splits a pair of defenders on his way to the hoop.
— image credit: Shawn Skager/Reporter

Few high school boys basketball followers believe unranked Auburn has any chance of unseating second-ranked Jackson when the teams tangle in a first-round state regional playoff Saturday.

The Trojans, however, are accustomed to proving naysayers wrong.

“Last year we finished seventh in our league. All our seniors left so nobody expected us to do anything,” said junior guard JJ Ruffin. “But everybody in our locker room believes in us. Nobody else did, but everybody in our locker room did, and that’s all that mattered.”

Fresh off clutch, back-to-back one-point wins in district play, Auburn (16-9) goes for the upset against the heralded Timberwolves (23-0) at 6 p.m. in the Jackson High School gymnasium.

“We aren’t afraid to play in Mill Creek,” Ruffin said. “We aren’t afraid to play Jackson or Garfield. We believe any game we go into we have a great chance to win. That’s just our attitude.”

Pegged to finish in the bottom half of the South Puget Sound League North 4A by many this season, the Trojans responded by playing with a chip on their shoulders. It’s been the fuel that has lit their fire all season.

At last weekend’s West Central District III/Southwest District IV 4A tournament, Auburn’s fire roared into full-blown conflagration. The Trojans swept through the consolation bracket after losing their opening-round contest. Auburn sent top 10-ranked Federal Way (19-5) packing with a 60-59 win and battled back to defeat league rival Jefferson (14-11) 70-69 to earn the No. 6 seed into regionals.

On Monday night at Mount Tahoma High School, the Trojans again overcame adversity on the road, coming from behind to beat Jefferson.

“We knew it was going to be a really difficult game,” Auburn coach Ryan Hansen said. “They were playing really well, and it’s always tough to beat a team three times when you face them in a season. I’m just really proud of the resiliency that our guys showed.

“There were a couple of times during the game where we got down eight or nine points and we never got rattled, never started pointing fingers,” Hansen said. “We kept battling and worked at getting one stop at a time.”

Junior Rio Paul’s 19 points led the Trojans in the win. Seniors Harold Lee and Spencer Fisher had 15 and 12 points, respectively, and Ruffin added 11.

The underdog role fits the Trojans just fine, Ruffin said.

“We’ve been in this situation before, and it’s late in the season,” he said. “We’ve learned from our past games. There is no quit in this team. That’s pretty much the bottom line. There is no quit. Honestly we just believe that we can beat any team. We’re just going for the ‘W’.”

Hansen agreed:

“We’re playing with a lot of toughness right now, we’re playing with a lot of fight,” he said. “And I think a lot of that can be attributed to that chip we’ve been playing with all year. We’re in a position that no one expected us to be in. We’ve been preaching that all season, so we’re going to keep living by it.”

A key ingredient, according to Fisher, is the team’s composure.

“For some reason, whenever things go tough for us, we come together,” he said. “Most teams, when they face adversity, fall apart, start picking apart what’s going wrong and start blaming other guys. We just work harder.

“Against Federal Way, nobody expected us to win and most people probably thought we were going to lose (Monday against Jefferson). So going into Jackson we’re not supposed to win. But we’ve got some good fans and our coaches behind us. As long as we all believe, that’s all we need.”


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