Oak Mountain’s historic season ends in Final Four, sets up bright future
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
BIRMINGHAM – Sitting at a press conference following a heartbreaking 65-57 loss to Lee-Montgomery in Oak Mountain’s first Final Four appearance in school history, Zane Nelson and Luke Love shared a fist bump.
What was it over? A 35 on Love’s ACT.
That moment, with tears streaming down the faces of both players, is a culmination of Oak Mountain’s historic season and a reason why they were able to make it to the team’s first Final Four in school history.
A team that had six sophomores on it got to benefit from the leadership of Nelson, Love and fellow senior Trey Sullivan.
“It’s something really special,” Luke love said of his bond with Nelson. “Playing with him for forever, there’s just a bond I’m so grateful for. Basketball when you look at is a weird game. Five people trying to throw a ball into a basket. But it’s elicited such a family for me. Even though I didn’t play, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world.”
Their closeness as seniors and the ability to do what the team needed helped create a special and monumental ride for the Eagles that started last year.
As soon as they lost in the first round of the area tournament a season ago, the Eagles set out to get better every day with the motto “DMGB” (Doesn’t matter, get better).
They not only did that this year by advancing to the Sweet 16, but taking the team on a special ride through the Elite Eight and to the Final Four.
“It’s been a whirlwind the last three weeks for our school and our community,” head coach Chris Love said. “That’s great. But for these kids, you can’t ask for a better group or a better season. We were committed when we lost to Thompson in the area tournament last year.”
That commitment led Oak Mountain to a matchup with Lee-Montgomery in the Class 7A semifinals, and while the outcome saw the Eagles come up eight points short, it showed on several occasions the fight they had against a team that came into the game with just one loss on the season by one point and a 32-1 record.
The game got off to an entertaining start when the two teams scored a combined eight points in the first 30 seconds, including back-to-back 3-pointers, but from there Lee opened up a five-point lead at 8-3 and 12-7.
Oak Mountain, however, got a spark from Nelson. While he was being tightly guarded in the half court off the ball and had only managed two free throws to that point, he finally caught a break.
On a steal, he was able to push up the floor on the fast break and fought through contact for an and-1 layup that brought the Eagles to within two points at 12-10.
Will Shaver then got in on the action with two free throws shortly after that tied the game before Trey Sullivan added a layup late to end the first quarter in a 14-14 tie and with Oak Mountain on a roll.
The Eagles extended their run to 11-2 early in the second quarter on a Noah Young offensive put back that put them in front 16-14.
Lee, however, bounced back with a big 3-pointer from Dyunkrea Lewis that put them back in front. The Eagles regained the lead shortly after with a poster dunk from Shaver and a layup from Nelson, but Lewis again answered with a 3-pointer.
The Generals were able to extend the lead to four shortly after, but off a steal from Evan Smith, Nelson was able to hit a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left in the half to cut the deficit to one point at 24-23 at the break.
Coming out of the halftime break, Oak Mountain hung around, but trailed by eight points on a few occasions in the third quarter and as many as nine late after a run from the Generals.
But with 1:14 left, Nelson hit another big basket, this time a 3-pointer that brought the Eagles to within five points at 39-34.
From there, however, Lee hit a layup and then following an Oak Mountain turnover, the Generals hit a half-court shot at the buzzer that put them in front by 12 heading to the final quarter and gave the Eagles their largest deficit of the game.
That trend continued throughout the final quarter with Lee ahead by double digits for the majority of the period.
But then, we got one final glimpse of a very special Nelson and Oak Mountain team.
Nelson hit four 3-pointers in a two-minute stretch, while Evers, Smith and Young also added big baskets.
With the Eagles all of a sudden catching fire, they cut the deficit from 17 points down to as little as six points with just less than a minute to play.
Time didn’t end up being on their side, but that final stretch showed the fight and desire of Oak Mountain and what a player like Nelson meant to a young team that will bring back much of its talent.
“I just have to say this about Zane Nelson. He had the best senior year of any kid I’ve ever coached,” Chris Love said after the win. “People will be missing out if they don’t get on him. He’s a winner. I’d go to war with him any time.”
Nelson committed to focusing on his game as a basketball player after last year’s ending, and while the outcome wasn’t what he had hoped for in the semifinals, he was proud to set the stage for the future.
“It was a great senior year,” Nelson said after the game. “I’m unsatisfied right now, but I wanted to help them build for the future and I’m glad I could play a part in that.”
Two of those players back next year will be Shaver and Young, both of whom were thankful for what Nelson taught them.
“Zane helped us set that foundation,” Shaver said. “He helped us realize how to achieve our goals.”
“Situations like these is a time to learn,” Young said. “Coach has taught us in past about mistakes and persevering. It doesn’t feel good right now, but something you have to go through. We just need to fight through it. It will motivate us next year.”
While coach Love was also emotional following the loss, especially for Nelson, his son and Sullivan, it was more the impact they had on him than the loss itself that go him.
“The thing that gets me right now is we won’t be together again tomorrow,” he said. “It’s the last time. That hurts. But I’m so, so proud.”