HARRIMAN — Evenly-matched championship games often hinge on a single play or sequence.
For a gassed Oneida team that was just trying to find a way to get to the finish line of Tuesday’s District 3-A championship game at Roane State Community College, that sequence came with 1:11 to play in the game.
First, Nathan Bowling — who had 18 points and would minutes later be named the tournament’s most valuable player — somehow managed to find a way to score from almost directly beneath the basket, giving Oneida the lead. Then, freshman Jeric Huling battled through a Harriman screen to knock the ball free, dove on the loose ball and had the presence of mind to call a quick time out. Four straight free throws later, the Indians celebrated a 59-57 win over the Blue Devils for the program’s first district tournament championship in 20 years.
“How he got that shot up in there, I’ll never know,” Oneida coach Jacob King said of Bowling’s shot to give his team the lead with just over a minute remaining. “I was going, ‘No, no, no.’ But then I was going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”
Oneida, which has now won four in a row against Harriman dating back to last year’s Region 2-A championship game, started the game in dominating fashion. Blue Devils head coach Shay Shannon was forced to burn two of his five timeouts in the first quarter in an effort to stymie a run by the Indians. It was 22-7 at the end of the first quarter.
But Harriman withstood the surge and then bounced back in the second quarter, out-scoring Oneida 18-7 to cut the lead to four points by the half.
After the Blue Devils cut the lead to just two points early in the third quarter, Oneida appeared to be finding its rhythm once again. Kolby Morgan, who had 17 points and was named to the all-tournament team, along with Dalton Yancey, Elijah West and Huling, scored six points in the third quarter. Yancey, who finished with 11 points, had a key 3-pointer. And Huling hit a 3-pointer and knocked down a pair of free throws, as Oneida built the lead back to eight points.
But then Harriman surged again, closing the third quarter on a 7-0 run to trail by just one. The ‘Devils had a chance to take their first lead of the game to start the fourth quarter, but were unable to capitalize. That lead would come later, however, when they went ahead 50-49 with 5:14 remaining.
“We didn’t play well offensively,” King said. “It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win. I’m tickled with these young men because we played hard.”
The fourth quarter was all about survival. Bowling, who was harassed by Harriman’s defenders all night and running on fumes, went 6 of 6 from the free throw line down the stretch. Morgan added four more free throws. As a team, the Indians were 10 of 12 from the line in the final period, and 13 of 15 for the game, after hitting just 14 of 29 free throws in a semifinal win over Wartburg.
In fact, Oneida won despite just two made field goals in the final period. Harriman’s Brady Stubbs, who finished with 14, had more than that all by himself in the fourth quarter.
But the Indians took care of their business at the free throw line.
After Harriman briefly took the lead, Oneida got it back and went up 53-50 on the strength of four straight free throws by Morgan. The Indians then had an opportunity to push it further, but twice came up empty on the offensive end. The ‘Devils were able to tie the game on a Silas Adkisson 3-pointer with 2:18 to play.
The next score for either team was Bowling’s acrobatic shot from beneath the rim. After Huling’s steal, Bowling hit a pair of free throws to put his team up by four points.
Stubbs scored with 8.8 seconds left to cut it back to two points, but Bowling hit two more free throws to ice the game. Kylann Love, who had 19 points to lead Harriman, hit a shot as time expired.
The Indians last won a district championship in 2000. Tuesday’s win also marked the first time Oneida’s boys and girls teams swept the district championship since 1997, which was King’s senior year. The Lady Indians defeated Wartburg on Monday night to clinch their first district title since 2016.
For perspective, when Oneida last won the district before Tuesday, George W. Bush was battling John McCain for the Republican nomination for president. Motorists were grumbling because a gallon of gasoline had increased in price from $1.17, on average, to $1.51. None of the players on Oneida’s 2019-2020 team had been born. And King was a junior in college.
Oneida almost won a district championship under Kevin Windle in 2004, but Harriman stood in its way, picking up a 42-33 win at Rockwood to deny the Indians the championship. From there, the Indians didn’t return to the district championship game until 2012, when Rusty Yaden’s team fell to Wartburg, 58-55. Oneida was the No. 1 seed in the tournament in 2014, but fell to Wartburg again, 66-61, in the semifinals. That would turn out to be Yaden’s final season with the Indians. Oneida’s next trip to the championship game would be in 2019, a 91-81 loss to Harriman.
“It felt good,” King said of Tuesday’s win. “Twenty years is a long time. That was our goal when we took this thing over — to get Oneida back. We won the region last year, and we probably slipped up and beat Harriman. They were clearly the better team. But this year we were the best team from start to finish. We were a Kolby Morgan away from going undefeated. But that loss (to Sunbright) helped us because we haven’t lost since. And I hope we don’t lose again for a while. Our goal is to get to Murfreesboro.
“I told our men I was proud of them, but this was just stage two,” King added. “Winning the regular season district championship was stage one. Now we have to complete stage three, and that’s winning the region tournament.”
Oneida will begin region play on Saturday, when Tellico Plains visits OHS Gymnasium for a 7 p.m. start. The Bears are 10-12 on the season, and finished fourth in District 4-A after falling to Sale Creek, 47-44, on Monday. Tellico Plains split a pair of regular season games with Wartburg, and also beat both Oliver Springs and Oakdale.
ONEIDA (59): Bowling 18, Morgan 17, Yancey 11, Huling 8, West 2, Perry 2.
HARRIMAN (57): Love 19, Stubbs 14, E. Adkisson 10, Kocha 5, S. Adkisson 3, Scudder 2.