Soaring to the top: Oak Mountain makes first Final Four in school history
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
JACKSONVILLE – A minute before tip-off of an Elite Eight matchup with Sparkman, Oak Mountain senior guard Zane Nelson gathered the team around him and told them, “We have a chance to make history right here and leave it all on the line.”
Two hours later, the guard bounced a ball high in the air after the final buzzer had sounded for a celebration dunk directly in front of his student section after Oak Mountain picked up a 60-51 win over Sparkman to send the Eagles to their first Final Four in school history.
“It’s all a part of hard work,” Nelson said. “When I was in middle school, we weren’t winning very much, but I stuck with it, which has made this season special. We knew we had it in us. We always talked about doing something special this year. And after playing here (Jacksonville State) during the summer and at the BJCC this season, we could see ourselves making history.”
Early on, you could tell Oak Mountain wasn’t scared of the moment despite Nelson being the only senior in a starting lineup that features three sophomores.
The Eagles were able to jump out to a quick 13-5 lead behind seven points from the senior as well as four points from sophomore center Will Shaver.
Sparkman, however, answered with a 10-0 run to close the quarter, which put the Senators in front 15-13 at the end of the first.
They came out and continued that to a 14-0 run early in the second, which put the Senators on top by six points as momentum seemed to fully be shifting in their favor.
Sensing his team needed to regain its composure, Oak Mountain head coach Chris Love called a timeout.
“We had some turnovers there and maybe some quick shots during span,” Love said. “So we called a timeout and the kids were great in the timeout. We just talked about keeping our composure and playing the next play.”
Right out of the timeout, Wilder Evers was able to lay a ball in through contact before going to the free throw line to complete the and-1 and halt the run.
That in turn started an 8-0 run to put the Eagles back in front after Nelson hit three free throws following a foul on a 3-point attempt.
After falling behind by one at 22-21, Evers hit another big shot, this time from beyond the arc, as Oak Mountain went on an 8-2 run to take a 29-24 lead into the halftime break.
Coming out of the half, Sparkman made some adjustments, and despite falling behind by seven after a layup from Nelson on the first possession of the third, the Senators responded with a calm 6-0 run behind two straight 3-pointers.
“We were scared to death to be honest,” Love said. “They have so many guys that can shoot it. We knew they would come back and that it would be a dogfight.”
That led into a back-and-forth portion of the game that saw the two teams make three combined threes in four possessions, the latter of which came from Evers and pushed the Eagles back in front 39-37 after falling behind by one.
Then, in a one point game with time winding down, Nelson had a clutch moment. After having a buzzer beater waved off going into the half, he found the ball in his hands in the post with less than five seconds to play in the quarter.
He gave a shimmy shake, before fading away for a shot that found the bottom of the net as the buzzer sounded to put the Eagles in front 44-41 going to the final period.
That’s when an already intense crowd for Oak Mountain took over and helped the Eagles close out the game.
After Sparkman had battled back to within one point with five minutes to play, Nelson hit a huge 3-pointer to put the Eagles in front 51-47 with 4:21 to play.
The crowd went crazy, and the Senators never got closer than two the rest of the way.
The Eagles went on to make six of their nine free throws in the final three minutes, while their crowd’s intensity helped play a part in Sparkman missing its final three from the line, which would have kept the Senators within striking distance.
But it was an emphatic two-handed slam from Shaver with 1:32 that put Oak Mountain up 57-51 and sent the crowd into a frenzy it didn’t leave for the remainder of the game.
“That was a huge momentum swing,” Shaver said of the dunk. “It’s great to hear our student section go crazy like that because they make such a difference in the game.”
That led to the Eagles closing out the 60-51 victory.
The moment was special for most of the players, who were either on the team or in the stands watching when the Eagles lost in the Elite Eight back in 2016.
“It’s cool because we were here when they lost last time so to be here and get us through is special,” Evers said.
Nelson finished the game with 23 points and eight rebounds, while Shaver added 11 points and seven rebounds with four blocks. Evers was big with clutch shooting as well, as he finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Noah Young added nine points, three rebounds and three assists, while Evan Smith scored six points, but more importantly, had seven assists.
Sitting in the interview room following the win Love got emotional, not just because of the historic outcome, but because of the players surrounding him, the former players that gave so much to the program, the fans in the stands and the community.
“I’m most proud that we truly are a family,” Love said after the historic win. “We’re such a talented group of kids, but this group is more than that, they’re an unbelievable group of kids in so many facets. Once you’re a part of our program, you’re a part of our family.”
Now, that family that Love said features every team and player that has stepped through his program, as well as the students that created a game-changing atmosphere, the community and the school, has a monumental reason to celebrate.
“It’s a dream come true, but we’re not done yet,” Nelson said. “I got some great teammates and it’s a fun ride with them that none of us are ready to see end.”
Oak Mountain will take on Robert E. Lee in the Final Four at the BJCC on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 10:30 a.m.
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.
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