Curtis High School senior Zack Paulsen was limping during pregame shoot-around Thursday morning at the Tacoma Dome, practicing taking jumpers off of one foot.
And, the seventh-seeded Vikings were just a day removed from narrowly escaping Glacier Peak in an opening round loser-out game. Their opponent, the top-seeded Union Titans entered fresh after securing a bye.
But this is the Class 4A state quarterfinals where rankings and health don’t necessarily matter.
Sore-ankled Paulsen, a Seattle Pacific signee and two-time 4A SPSL MVP, poured in a game-high 22 points as Curtis upended the sharp-shooting Titans, 58-55, to advance to Friday’s 4A state semifinals for the second time in four seasons.
“We just never gave in,” Curtis coach Tim Kelly said. “We kept believing we were going to get stops. And, down the stretch, that’s what we kept talking about — get this stop, get this stop.
“Then, when we got the lead, this is what we play for, this is what we’re known for — defense, defense, defense.”
Union (25-2) extended its lead to as many as six points in the fourth quarter, when Brad Lackey opened the final frame with one of his four 3-pointers.
“We know they’re going to hit shots,” Paulsen said. “They’re the No. 1-ranked team in the state. They hit big shots at big times. We just can’t let that get to us, and we didn’t let it get to us. We just kept executing our offense.”
Each of Union’s next five possessions resulted in turnovers, allowing the Vikings to slowly cut into the lead.
Jordan Parker gave Curtis (21-6) the final advantage on a contested layup with 1:38 remaining in the game. He converted the following free throw to make it 54-53.
The Vikings again forced Union to cough the ball up on the following possession, and Solomon McGinnis extended the lead to 56-53 on a driving, left-handed layup.
Houston Combs trimmed the lead back to a point with eight seconds to play when he blew by Curtis’ defense, but Paulsen was fouled immediately on the in-bounds pass, and coolly sunk the two free throws to push the lead to 58-55.
Combs scampered down the floor with 6.6 seconds to play, and got a look at a running 3-pointer, but McGinnis corralled the rebound short of the rim at the buzzer, and charged down the court in celebration.
“It was a huge battle, but coach just kept telling us to keep our poise,” Parker said. “We bounced back, and I thought we played really well as a team. We knew it was going to be a battle from the start. It’s just a huge, huge win for us.”
Several Curtis players made pivotal contributions on possessions Paulsen would typically take the lead on. Parker finished with 11 points, while McGinnis and Jared Franklin each had eight, and Isaac Morrow chipped in seven.
“Every single one of them stepped up,” Paulsen said. “They all played hard, played their hearts out. It was just all for each other, and that’s what makes this so special.”
Paulsen said after aggravating his left ankle Wednesday — the right has been nagging him all season — that he would continue to play through the tournament.
“It’s just a mindset. Pain is just a mindset,” he said. “In the beginning the pain was getting to me a little bit, and I was like, ‘This really hurts.’
“But, something clicked, our team came together and I was like, ‘This can’t be the reason we’re going to lose this game.’ I kind of had to block it out.”
“Zack is a warrior,” Kelly said.
Union’s 55 points were its second-lowest scoring total of the season — and lowest since its season-opening win against West Seattle in November — despite shooting 17 of 41 from the floor (41.5 percent) and a perfect 15 of 15 from the free throw line.
“That was our target,” Kelly said of holding the Titans in the 50-point range. “If we could do that, we could muster up enough.”
Ethan Smith led the Vikings with 18 points, while Lackey had 16.
Curtis plays No. 4 Mount Si at 3:45 p.m. Friday in the quarterfinals.
NO. 7 CURTIS
NO. 1 UNION
C – Shooting: 20 of 47 (42.6 percent). Free throws: 16 of 22 (72.7). Turnovers: 10.
U – Shooting: 17 of 41 (41.5 percent). Free throws: 15 of 15 (100). Turnovers: 19.
C – Jared Franklin 8, Zack Paulsen 22, Jordan Parker 11, Solomon McGinnis 8, Maceo Lewis 2, Isaac Morrow 7.
U – Tanner Toolson 7, Alishawaun Taylor 4, Brad Lackey 16, Houston Combs 6, Ethan Smith 18, Mason Hill 2, Curtis Youngren 2.