Oak Mountain makes school history with Final Four win
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
BIRMINGHAM – When the final seconds ticked off the clock in a 57-44 loss to Lee Montgomery inside the BJCC on Feb. 27, 2020, history had been made by the Oak Mountain Eagles, but it wasn’t enough.
Finishing the season in their first Final Four in school history, the Eagles made it a point right then that they would do whatever it took to get back a year later and redeem that loss.
On Tuesday, March 2, the Eagles held true to that promise when they took down the Auburn Tigers inside Bartow Arena to earn their first trip to a basketball state championship game in school history.
“Our teammates made a decision around a year ago about this time when we lost. That’s when we made a decision to commit to get even further,” senior Noah Young said after the historic win. “The way we responded with everything that was thrown at us, shows the character and love and bond we have. Although you see us on the court, it’s a lot more than basketball for us, and we wanted to do this together.”
It didn’t come without challenges, but the Eagles overcame a slow start offensively and a halftime deficit for the second game in a row to score 30 points in the second half and take a momentous 45-37 win.
“In preseason practice, we had this idea in our head to get back,” junior Will Shaver said. “We always had that in our head. We figured it out around area time and went on an eight-game win streak and took it one game at time, which gave us this opportunity.”
In the first half, however, Oak Mountain came out timid on the offensive end, and fell into an early hole.
Auburn jumped out to a 9-2 lead with a Brady Dunn layup the only two points for the Eagles over the first 3:19 of the game.
Evan Smith and Wilder Evers responded with a layup and 3-pointer, respectively, to make it 9-7, but a 4-0 to end the quarter put Auburn in front 13-7 at the end of the opening quarter.
Oak Mountain got off to an ideal start to the second quarter when Evers powered through contact for what became an and-1 to cut the deficit to three points.
But Auburn answered back with a quick 6-1 run on two 3-pointers, one from NBA range and one wide open.
That put the Tigers back in front by eight points at 19-11 with 3:42 to play in the half.
Then, out of a timeout, Young finally got his first look of the game and fired away for a 3-pointer, which he drained. That was followed by a free throw from Shaver to help the Eagles end the half on a 4-0 run and cut trim the deficit to 19-15.
It marked the close of a half where Oak Mountain was outrebounded 20-13, including 9-3 on the offensive end. That gave the Tigers seven second-chance points compared to none for the Eagles.
“We started off a little slow at first, but at halftime, we had a little talk and took a deep breath. We had to be patient on our end and play defense. We knew our shots would take care of themselves, as long as we defended and rebounded and did what we had to do.”
And after a 4-0 run from Auburn to start the second half, the Eagles saw their patience pay off.
Shaver hit another free throw before Young drained back-to-back 3-pointers to all of a sudden bring Oak Mountain within a point with 5:14 to play in the third.
“Noah is like a son to me,” head coach Chris Love said. “He’s been special for us come playoff time. Not only big shots, but he’s been a big leader for us when we needed him.”
And his big shots early in the third quarter got Oak Mountain’s crowd into the game and completely switched the momentum of the second half.
Following Young, it was Evers’ turn. The junior tied the game for the first time since 0-0 with 3:17 left in the third on a strong take to the basket.
Then, he was on the receiving end of a great assist from Smith when he slashed for the backdoor cut and gave Oak Mountain its first lead of the game at 26-24 with 2:34 left in the quarter.
Evers scored six of the final eight points for the Eagles in the quarter to help Oak Mountain open up a 30-25 lead going to the fourth.
“Wilder has struggled a little bit this year, but the son of the gun is not scared of the moment. He is a tough kid and comes through in pressure situations,” Love said. “He’s done it throughout the playoffs for us.”
In addition to his strong stretch, Shaver, who had struggled throughout the game, slammed home a dunk late in the third quarter that helped him finish strong and get the crowd back into it once again.
“I’m doing the same thing I always do for us,” Shaver said after the game. “I had surgery back in January to fix something on my foot, which has been reoccurring throughout the season. I’m just doing my best to be a good teammate and be there for them.”
Shaver went on to score five more in the final quarter to finish off the game on a high note and help the Eagles maintain their lead.
He was joined by Evers, who slammed one home and made a free throw, as well as Smith and Young who combined to make seven free throws down the stretch to ice the 45-37 win.
“The key to the game was us defensively in the second half. We decided we were going to go guard them. Then, they killed us on the boards in the first half, but we kept them off the boards in the second half for the most part,” Love said. “Defense and rebounds win this time of year.”
Oak Mountain held Auburn to 13 or less in every quarter of the game, including six in both the second and third quarters.
“Our kids are just committed to defending. That’s not the fun part, it doesn’t show up in the stats, but it wins game,” Love said. “It was the difference in this game.”
The Eagles also came back to outrebound Auburn 18-11 in the second half, which made a crucial difference.
Evers led the way for the Oak Mountain with 15 points, while also adding two rebounds. Young finished with 12 points and six rebounds to follow up his double-double performance in the Elite Eight.
And after a quiet start and chants of overrated, Shaver responded in a big way with 10 points and six rebounds with two blocks, while he also altered several other shots. Smith finished with six points and added in five assists.
Oak Mountain will now take on either Spain Park or Enterprise on Wednesday, March 2 at 4:30 p.m.