CHATTANOOGA — When Nick Pelfrey’s 3-point shot from the corner sailed long and Jordan Perry snagged the rebound as the buzzer sounded, Oneida’s bench exploded in celebration. Head coach Jacob King sank to his knees in relief.
In one instant, the mix of emotions in the Indians’ 54-52 win over Harriman on Thursday to clinch the Region 2-A championship were summed up.
King, whose team has won region titles in back-to-back years for the first time in program history, said minutes later that he had to take a moment to collect himself after the emotions of the game.
“I’m proud of my young men,” said King, still breathless 15 minutes after the game ended. “DeWitt, Perry, Elijah, they all played big. Jarrett played big. And we got one big defensive stop and the rebound at the end to win the game.”
The game was that close to ending in heartbreak. Pelfrey had been red-hot in the second half, and got as good a look as Harriman could’ve asked for. The freshman had 13 points, including three second half 3-pointers.
Nobody could have imagined at halftime that the game would end as close as it did. Oneida dominated the first half, putting together one of its finest defensive performances of the season. Harriman didn’t score a point in the first quarter, and was limited to just five points by the halftime break. The Blue Devils didn’t score until the 3:21 mark of the second quarter, and didn’t have a field goal until the 2:17 mark. Harriman’s starters didn’t score a point in the first half.
Despite struggling some offensively in the first half, Oneida built a 22-0 lead as Harriman missed its first 24 shot attempts. By the time Andrew DeWitt — who led the Indians with 12 points — put the exclamation mark on the first half with a two-handed, fast-break dunk, Oneida was up by 23 points.
The second half, however, was a different story. Harriman stayed in the locker room until the buzzer sounded to signal the resumption of play for the third quarter. When the Blue Devils returned to the court, it was with determination.
When King took his first time out after Harriman had started the half on a 6-3 run, it was still 30-11, a commanding lead for the Indians. But the Blue Devils just kept coming.
With the Harriman fans who made the drive to Chattanooga roaring their approval, and the Oneida faithful watching in disbelief, Harriman came all the way back to tie the game at 48 on an and-one by Brady Stubbs, who had 20 points in the second half to lead all scorers.
Just minutes prior, it appeared that Oneida had perhaps survived a scare. After Harriman cut the lead to 42-36 midway through the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils were whistled for a technical foul after a common foul, when Mason Kocha got tangled up with Oneida’s Dalton Yancey.
Blue Devils coach Shay Shannon protested the call, but it was in some ways a turn-about. In the first half, Yancey had been tagged with a technical foul after what appeared to be a flop by a Harriman player.
Meanwhile, the Indians hit all four of their free throws — two by Yancey, two by Nathan Bowling — to go up by 10 points and had the ball. But a turnover on the ensuing inbounds play gave Harriman the ball and sent the Blue Devils to the line after a foul. Oneida had 23 turnovers for the game.
As the game continued to get closer, Oneida’s Kolby Morgan would foul out of the game. With Bowling playing with four fouls, the Indians appeared to be in trouble. But they managed to weather the storm.
Yancey came up big in the fourth quarter to earn a spot on the all-tournament team — along with Morgan and Elijah West, who had seven rebounds and three assists. Yancey had seven of his 10 in the final period, going 4 of 4 from the line and hitting a key 3-pointer.
Bowling, who was named the tournament’s MVP, also had a key 3-pointer, giving Oneida a 51-47 lead with 55 seconds to play. He finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
But Harriman answered with a 3-pointer by Stubbs with 22 seconds left, cutting the Indians’ lead to 52-50. After Bowling hit one of two free throws, Ethan Adkisson scored with nine seconds remaining to make it 53-52. Oneida’s Jeric Huling then made the second of two free throws to make it 54-52, and Harriman had a chance to win at the buzzer.
But Pelfrey’s 3-point shot was off the mark, and Perry snagged the rebound to end the game.
“I knew they’d make a run, but I didn’t think they’d make that kind of run,” King said. “But I’m going to tell you something: Give those Harriman kids credit. I told them, ‘Y’all played your tails off. You probably deserved to win the game because you outplayed us for two quarters.’”
In the end, though, the tournament’s MVP came up with the biggest shot of the night.
“I told Nate Bowling, big-time players make big-time shots. And that shot he hit was huge,” King said. “We were sucking air, but this time of year is just about surviving.”
By surviving, Oneida earned a home substate game. The Indians will host University High on Monday at OHS Gymnasium. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. The winner will advance to the state tournament in Murfreesboro. Oneida’s Lady Indians will also host a substate game, as Cloudland visits on Saturday for a 7 p.m. start. It was the first time since 2002 that Oneida teams swept the Region 2-A championships.
“You gotta commend these kids,” King said of his team. “They found a way to win. Our goal from day one, from the minute the buzzer sounded and Cosby beat us last year, was to get back to where we were at and get to the state tournament. And, you know what? As a coach, I wouldn’t want to coach any other team. We don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes we butt heads. But at the end of the day, they’re gonna go to war for me and I’m gonna go to war for them. They’ve found a way to win in each of the last five games, and I can’t say enough about them.”
ONEIDA (54): DeWitt 12, Bowling 10, Yancey 10, Morgan 8, Huling 7, Perry 4, West 3.
HARRIMAN (52): Stubbs 20, Pelfrey 13, E. Adkisson 6, Love 4, Kocha 4, S. Adkisson 2, Brown 2, Oliver 1.