Oak Mountain’s bid at repeating comes up short in tight Elite Eight loss

Published 1:41 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor 

HANCEVILLE – Sitting in a press conference after his team just lost a 59-55 game against James Clemens to prevent a third straight appearance in the Final Four, Oak Mountain head coach Chris Love sat in silence with tears filling his eyes as he looked for the right words.

“I’m probably not going to do this too much longer,” Love said. “I’m just really proud of my kids and how they do things. I hurt right now because they do everything we ask them to do. I feel bad because I didn’t do a good job. It’s 100 percent on me. The kids did everything I asked them to.”

A group that lost last year’s leading scorers and rebounders in Noah Young and Will Shaver, Love was disappointed in himself because of everything the players had done right the last year to prove that they were still a championship team.

“This is how special our kids are. We won a state championship last year, and these guys came back better basketball players,” Love said. “It would have been easy for us to point to our banner in the gym every time and say, ‘We’ve done this and be done,’ but they didn’t. They wanted to get better. That’s what we preach all the time. It doesn’t matter what happens, you work, you get better. You get better as a person, in basketball, in academics. Integrity is important, doing things the right way is important, and our kids have done that in our program.”

With nine seniors on the team, Love couldn’t have imagined a better three-year span than what they helped Oak Mountain accomplish with three consecutive Elite Eight appearances, back-to-back Final Fours and one state championship.

“For us to go 25-6, win the area tournament, be here in the Elite Eight… the elephant in the room from the get go was, ‘Y’all don’t have Will (Shaver), y’all are done,’” Love said. “We still had really good players and planned on doing the same thing. We worked our butts off, and I am so proud of this group.”

That leadership from Love was a big reason players like Evan Smith battled through injuries all year to be a part of the team before heading to play Division I college football, and why guys like Wilder Evers, Brady Dunn, Matthew Heiberger, Ryan Giegel, Gavin Nelson and so many others worked every day to help the team get better as leaders on a team that did lose its top two starters.

“It means everything,” Dunn said after the loss of Love’s remarks. “I’m sad it ended this way, but we put everything we had into this season.”

And that showed in a back-and-forth game that featured 15 lead changes.

The first half alone featured 10 lead changes and was kick started when Dunn hit back-to-back 3-pointers as part of four straight combined threes from the two teams that put James Clemens in front 8-6.

The Jets went on to eventually take a 12-6 lead as part of a 7-0 run.

Evers ended the run with an offensive put back, but turnovers were a problem early for the Eagles.

It led to them falling behind 15-8 before Devan Moss drove strong to the basket to cut the deficit to five at the end of one.

Oak Mountain, however, started the second quarter on a 9-3 run to jump back in front after Dun hit two of three from the line with 6:02 left in the half following being fouled on a 3-pointer.

The teams traded the lead several times from there, with James Clemens eventually regaining a 27-21 lead.

But the Eagles got a big stretch to end the first half.

After eventually taking the lead back at 28-27, Oak Mountain fell behind again at 29-28.

Then, Giegel made a layup, which was followed by a personal foul and a technical foul.

The Eagles capitalized by making three straight free throws before Smith made a floater for a 35-29 lead going to the half, as they finished the second quarter on a 14-2 run.

Turnovers, however, had kept James Clemens in the game, as the turned seven from Oak Mountain into 16 points, while the Jets committed none in the half.

“Points off turnovers were likely the difference today,” Love said.

Early in the first half, however, the Eagles seemed to continue overcoming that when Giegel hit a 3-pointer to extend the Oak Mountain lead to its largest of the game at 38-31.

James Clemens, however, responded in a big way with an two and-1 baskets and a 3-pointer on three consecutive possessions to storm in front 45-40.

But the Eagles answered back once again with two of four from the line and a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Dunn to force a 45-45 tie going to the final quarter.

“Brady was unbelievable today,” Love said. “That was as good of a performance as I’ve seen from one of my players in this kind of environment. He is a quiet assassin. Doesn’t say two words, but the son of a gun is going to compete.”

The Eagles then took the lead on a Giegel hook with the left hand to start the fourth quarter, before the game seesawed with three consecutive 3-pointers.

Dunn gave Oak Mountain a 50-48 lead early in the quarter with his sixth from beyond the arc in the game, but Jordan Frzier responded with one of his own.

That became the 15th and final lead change of the game.

Oak Mountain came back to tie the game with just more than two minutes left on a strong take from Smith.

The Jets, however, held the ball for the next 1:20 before calling a timeout to set up a play.

Out of the timeout, they found a wide open backdoor cut after Oak Mountain was forced to change its defensive scheme.

“We felt like we had bothered them a little bit with our trapping from behind, and we felt like we could do that without giving up a layup, which is 100 percent on me,” Love said. “If I had to do it over again, we probably would have done the same thing. I think you need to make them make a play instead of hold the ball for a minute. We were hoping to get a turnover or something out of it, but at least make them have to do something. It was a very poor job on my part to get them to understand that.”

Down 57-55, the Eagles got one last look from Dunn that hit the back of the iron to prevent the go-ahead basket.

James Clemens missed one of two on the other end with 6.7 left to play, but a turnover on the rebound from Oak Mountain gave it back to the Jets who sank both to close out the win.

Dunn finished as the leading scorer for Oak Mountain with 25 points, while he also added seven rebounds. Giegel finished in double figures as well with 13 points, while he totaled four rebounds.

Heiberger added seven rebounds, while Smith totaled seven points and three boards and Evers totaled five points and five rebounds.

Oak Mountain had 16 turnovers, which led to 29 points, while James Clemens had seven turnovers leading to 14 points.