Déjà vu: Oak Mountain headed to 2nd Final Four in a row
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
HANCEVILLE – Trailing 16-12 at the half against Hoover, the Oak Mountain Eagles were forced to take a deep breath at the halftime break.
With a second trip in a row to the Final Four on the line, the Eagles had scored just four points in the second quarter, while the Bucs went into the half on an 8-0 run to squash all momentum.
“It was really just taking a deep breath and realizing the mistakes we made and acknowledging them,” senior Noah Young said. “Then, we came out in the second half and we fixed those mistakes. We were a lot more patient on our end of the floor and started making plays that we’re used to making and making shots that we all know we can make.”
Coming out of the break, they found a sense of calmness and it started when Young drained a 3-pointer to start the quarter. His seven points in the quarter as well as a monster put-back dunk from Will Shaver and four free throws in a row swung the momentum quickly back into the favor of the Eagles.
Only up 23-20, however, neither team had seized the momentum swings in the game.
That swiftly changed in the opening minutes of the final quarter, as Oak Mountain answered the bell in the biggest moment of the season.
Wilder Evers buried a highly-contested 3-pointer with a defender’s hand blocking the view of the basket to start the quarter, Young had a strong take to the basket for an easy layup and Brady Dunn knocked down a 3-pointer.
That gave the Eagles an 8-0 run out of the gate, and their student section which filled up a complete end of the arena, went crazy. Oak Mountain started pulling away with a rejuvenating 31-20 lead.
“It’s something we knew would come at some point in the game,” Young said of the run. “We didn’t know quite when. It felt good to honestly see it happen, because we felt it coming and when it did, we took advantage of it.”
Hoover was forced to play catch up from there, but after cutting the deficit to eight points, the Eagles took command and decided the trip to the Final Four was theirs.
Junior guard Evan Smith made five of his next six free throws and Shaver had another throw-down slam on a fast break to ice it with 1:07 left to play, as the Eagles clinched a berth to their second Final Four in a row with a 43-30 win.
“Our kids have never wavered,” head coach Chris Love said. “We struggled early in the year. We had a lot of injuries. It just took us a while. I kept on trying to calm people down saying ‘We’re going to be OK,’ because of these kids. They’re great kids and they wanted this moment again.”
And now, they’ve got that feeling again.
Going into last year, the Eagles had never made a Final Four in school history. Each step further they made it was an accomplishment.
Heading into this year, they lost leading scorer and Shelby County Player of the Year Zane Nelson, but the goal remained the same with the rest of the starting five back. They expected to get back to this point.
“It’s a big accomplishment. It’s really what we were planning on doing and even more since the beginning of the season,” Young said.
Now, the goal isn’t just a Final Four, but a championship after last year’s loss to Lee-Montgomery one game short of the title matchup.
“It’s a great hunger within the atmosphere,” Young said. “It’s something we talk about every day. Everything we do revolves around us doing what we need to do to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season.”
Early in the game, both teams put an emphasis on being physical defensively in the opening two quarters, especially at the rim, which led to struggles for both out of the gate.
Hoover took the early lead with a layup 1:38 into the game, but Oak Mountain answered back with an 8-0 run led by four points from Smith.
That put the Eagles in front 8-2 before the Bucs hit a layup with a minute left for the second and final basket of the opening quarter.
The momentum swung, however, in the second quarter.
It took time for the two teams to get going again, but Hoover’s Colby Carter put together a strong start and brought Hoover to within one point thanks to a 4-1 start by himself to the quarter.
One of Oak Mountain’s best possessions came after that when the Eagles worked inside-out. Young passed down to Shaver, who found a wide open Dunn for three. Hesitant to shoot the three for much of the first half, Dunn let this one fly and drained it.
But from there, it was all Hoover.
The Bucs made a layup to answer and then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to end the half on an 8-0 run and take a 16-12 lead into the half.
That’s when Oak Mountain continued with its defensive pressure and held Hoover to four points for the second time in the game in the third quarter to start making a difference in a second half that saw the Eagles outscore the Bucs 31-14.
“Our kids really have bought in in the last month about how good we can be defensively,” Love said. “We can really disrupt some people on that end of the floor and it was the difference today.
It’s an Oak Mountain team that battled through injuries to several starters for the first two months of the season, but has now fought back to play their best basketball at the right tie.
“Since we were thrown adversity at the beginning of the season, I really liked the way my teammates handled the situation,” Young said. “It’s just an opportunity that we were given, and we’re planning on making the most out of it.”
Oak Mountain was led by Young with a double-double performance including 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Smith finished just behind with 12 points and five boards. Smith finished the game 8-13 from the line, which helped close it out.
Beyond that, Dunn added six points and seven rebounds, Evers added five points and six boards, and Shaver finished with five points and five rebounds.
Now, those players and many more on the team, who two years ago had never seen a Final Four, will be remembered for being a part of school history as back-to-back teams to make the Final Four.
But like last year, the goal is to create more history, and that comes with two more wins.
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.