Oak Mountain goes toe-to-toe with Huntsville in Sweet 16 loss

Published 5:41 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

JACKSONVILLE – With everyone on the outside doubting them, the Oak Mountain Eagles entered their Sweet 16 matchup against the top-ranked Huntsville Panthers on Tuesday, Feb. 13 hoping to shock the state, and for a while, the Eagles had their chance.

However, Oak Mountain couldn’t keep up down the stretch and the Panthers pulled away in the second half to win 56-38 in the Northeast Regional Semifinals at Jacksonville State’s Pete Mathews Coliseum.

“Just a great opportunity for us to be able to go out there and shock the world, shock the state, and dang it if we didn’t have a chance there for a little while,” Oak Mountain coach Joel Floyd said. “I’m just extremely proud of the guys.”

Huntsville looked every bit like the top team in the state in the early minutes of the game. The Panthers scored the opening 13 points of the game to take control.

However, Oak Mountain responded well with baskets from Christopher Kunard and Grey Williams and a pair of free throws by Gray Plaia to score 10 points in the first quarter.

That cut the Huntsville lead to 18-10 at the end of the first and paved the way for the Eagles to continue clawing back throughout the rest of the half.

Both defenses dominated the early minutes of the second quarter as the Panthers were held scoreless until the 3:11 mark and Chase Lamey’s 3-point play was the only Oak Mountain offense in response.

After Huntsville scored again a few seconds later, Will O’Dell got the Eagles back within seven. He then made a clutch 3-pointer with just 15 seconds left in the half to electrify the Oak Mountain fans.

The teams then traded free throws to close out the half to keep the Eagles down just four at the halftime break.

However, that 23-19 score wouldn’t hold for much longer as the dam broke for the Huntsville offense.

The Panthers went on a 16-3 run during the third quarter as the momentum shifted back in favor of the No. 1 team in Alabama.

After being held scoreless since 1:17 into the game, Caleb Harrison scored six points to power the Huntsville offense. On the other end of the floor, the Eagles were held scoreless from the field as the Panthers went up 39-22 by the end of the third quarter.

Oak Mountain wouldn’t go down quietly as O’Dell led the way for the offense. Williams, Kunard and Kevin Jasinski all found the scoreboard throughout the fourth quarter as the Eagles regained their shooting form.

However, the Panthers used their commanding lead to seal the 18-point win in the Sweet 16.

O’Dell led the way for the Eagles with 12 points and five rebounds. Williams scored nine points, Kunard had seven points and Plaia recorded four steals.

After the game, Huntsville coach Christian Schweers complimented Floyd’s game-plan for giving them a harder fight than expected.

Floyd credited the plan to hours of studying film and stats on the Panthers, finding ways to neutralize Harrison and limit Huntsville’s big shots while presenting different looks than they had all season.

“We had a game plan of, ‘look, we’re going to try to switch things up a little bit, not do exactly what we’ve always done,’” Floyd said. “We threw out some curveballs here and there to try to steal a possession one or two and make them think. Because the game of basketball, if you’re out there thinking and not playing, it slows you down, and then shots don’t go in and then we can get rebounds and then we can get out and run.”

To his team’s credit, he said they nearly executed it to perfection. However, he said his team didn’t quite play the perfect game that they needed to earn the win.

“We had to have an A-plus game,” Floyd said. “I felt like we had an A game, but that wasn’t going to cut it. We were going to have an A-plus game to find a way to steal it.”

Jasinski knew the Eagles had doubters coming into the game and hopes their effort proved some of them wrong.

I think we take a lot of pride because a lot of people doubted that we’d make it here,” Jasinski said. “I’d say the ups and downs that we had this year, it was great to get here, so I’m really proud of all of our guys.”

Williams and his senior teammates saw a lot of fight out of the rest of the team, in particular the junior class. He feels more confident passing the torch to them now that his time is done at Oak Mountain.

“I feel like just the way that the juniors came out and played as hard as they could for us really showed that they’re ready to embrace that role and come in and do it again next year, honestly,” Williams said.

In the end, while the Eagles players and coaches wanted to make it further than the Sweet 16, they took pride in their mentality and approach to their game against Huntsville as they came in ready to shock the world and armed with lessons from the season.

“Coming into the game, we had a great mindset about it,” senior Emanuel Johnson said. “This is a typical thing for us, and to keep it going like that when a lot of people didn’t expect us to, I think we did a really good job, especially just the way we competed every night, especially today. I couldn’t ask for a different result or better effort from anybody, especially our juniors.”