Oak Mountain looks back on special season following Sweet 16 loss to Huntsville

Published 4:06 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor

JACKSONVILLE – It didn’t end the way they hoped, but for the 2022-2023 Oak Mountain basketball team, it was about more than the final score inside Pete Matthews Coliseum on Wednesday, Feb. 15.

In what was a tight first half to the game, the Eagles ultimately got outscored 25-4 in the third quarter and went on to lose 68-32, but the trek back to the Sweet 16 was a special one for first-year head coach Joel Floyd after losing one of the most decorated senior classes in school history before taking over.

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Floyd said of this year’s team. “We graduated nine seniors and it was the class that did all of the things in turning this program into a championship contender. But look at us here. We won the regular season area championship and made it to sweet 16. Toughness and grit was something we were extremely proud of. We established before the season that is what Oak Mountain basketball is and that’s who it’s going to be. Not just one class.”

It was also a special run for senior leading scorer Matthew Heiberger, who contemplated even playing his final season with a new coach as one of the top baseball players in the state as well.

Ultimately, he decided to lace up his shoes for one last go, and he finished off the season by averaging close to 30 points per game in the final six games

“It was the best decision I’ve made,” Heiberger said of deciding to come back. “I prayed about it and it clicked at one point that I wanted to do it. I’m glad I came back to be a part of this. It was a great decision and a great time. It’s been the best time of my life.”

Floyd said Heiberger’s presence was key in giving them a chance every night, comparing him to former Shelby County Player of the Year Justin Allison.

“Matt is an ultimate competitor,” Floyd said. “Similar to Justin Allison. He is the only other kid who I’ve ever been around who competes like he does. He refuses to lose. I’ve talked with coaches the past week, who have said, ‘Coach, I know you don’t match up well with them, but you may because Heiberger just won’t let you lose.’ He averaged 31 points per game the last six games. That was just him going and making plays. That’s for a kid doing it for fun. This isn’t even his sport. I can’t wait to watch him carry that over onto the mound and just go out there and watch him dominate people. It’s been fun to be a part of it as a coach, now I’m excited to watch as a fan.”

For the Eagles, it marked their fourth consecutive year in the Sweet 16, as the program’s standard remained intact.

And early in the game, they looked confident enough to hang with the Panthers.

They trailed by five early in a back-and-forth first quarter, but Oak Mountain was able to put together a late run to even the score at 10-10. Huntsville ultimately broke that tie late in the quarter to grab an early 12-10 lead going to the second.

The panthers then extended the lead back to five points early in the second quarter, but the Eagles quickly responded with back-to-back 3-pointers from Eli Love that helped keep them close at 18-16.

The Panthers, however, started to instill their will in the paint from there. They had 12 offensive rebounds in the opening half of the game and outrebounded Oak Mountain 23-5.

That played a big role in leading to easy baskets and second chance points, as they ended the first half on a 9-1 run to take a 27-17 lead into the half.

“It was a game we felt like we had a chance and opportunity in to get out there and compete,” Floyd said. “We felt like if we played our best, we could get it, but we didn’t do that. Offensive rebounds was a big trouble spot for us. All of that length they have, we have some, but they have a lot, and they just kept grabbing them.”

That was something that carried into the second half as well.

After the two traded baskets to make it 29-19, the Panthers went on 21-0 run and eventually took a 52-21 lead into the final quarter.

At that point, Huntsville had all of the momentum and was able to finish off the 36-point win.

Heiberger finished as the leading scorer for Oak Mountain with 16 points in his final game, while Tre Thomas added eight points and three blocks. Love finished with the two 3-pointers to total six points.