Since their freshmen year, the seniors on Oberlin’s boys basketball team have struggled with shooting early in games. Usually though, the Phoenix could snap out of it, bounce back, and still win games.
On Friday night, it finally caught up with them, as Oberlin fell, 66-51, to Northwestern in the Division III Wooster District final.
Thing couldn’t have started out much worse for Oberlin. The Huskies jumped out to a 16-2 lead, thanks in large part to the Phoenix inability to put the ball in the basket.
“I’m proud of my team and the time I spent here playing with them,” Oberlin senior Donald Johnson said. “We thought we were prepared, coming into the game, but they (Northwestern) came out stronger than we did. That’s been a problem for us our whole careers, coming out slow.
“I think today, we just got in too deep and couldn’t climb out of it.”
Johnson scored a team-high 23 points, and was the only Oberlin scorer to reach double digits.
“He (Johnson) played well. I’ll take Donald over anyone,” Oberlin coach Kurt Russell said. “I don’t want to be biased, but I think he’s a marvelous player, a marvelous person, and I couldn’t say enough about him. He was the only one who was making little shots tonight. The rest of the players just weren’t on.”
Northwestern shot 53 percent from the field (20-38), while Oberlin shot just 35 percent (19-54), including Johnson’s 11-of-16 shooting night.
“In the beginning of the season, that was our Achilles’ heel. We started off slow, and Northwestern jumped on us,” Russell said. “That was our fear coming into the game: if we started off slow, it would be difficult for us to comeback on a very quality program. That’s what happened.
“We tried to claw our way back, but we just shot the ball poorly tonight.”
The Phoenix were just 1-of-16 from 3-point range. While Oberlin usually doesn’t rely much on the 3, Johnson felt his team started pressing when shots weren’t falling.
“That’s not something that we try to focus on (shooting 3s),” he said. “After you start missing them, you keep putting them up and it becomes desperation.”
Despite falling behind early, the Phoenix fought back and still believed they had chance. At the half, they’d cut the Huskies’ lead to 10, 27-17.
“We knew that at halftime, we could come back from 10 points,” Russell said. “That’s nothing for us; we’d been there before. It’s just that tonight we couldn’t score. That really hurt us.”
Oberlin cut the lead to seven in the second half, but still shots weren’t falling.
“We couldn’t score anything tonight,” Russell said. “We missed a lot of free throws and a lot of layups. It was one of those games that it just spiraled down on the offensive end. We cut the lead to seven, and I thought our defense could pick up and get some easy transition points; it never happened.”
The other thing that hurt Oberlin was Northwestern’s dominance on the glass. The Huskies outrebounded the Phoenix 42-13, thanks in large part to Northwestern senior center Derek Koch’s 19 boards.
The Huskies were led by Parker Smith’s game-high 25 points. Koch chipped in 11.
Oberlin finishes the season with a 19-6 record, falling short of its goal of winning back-to-back district titles. Still, Russell is proud of what his team accomplished.
“I’m proud of them. I’m going to miss these boys,” he said. “Most of them played as freshmen. Their freshmen and sophomore years, they took some lumps. We knew it was a work in progress. The kids stuck with the program, and by their junior year, they did some pretty good things. I thought this year we did some good things.
“We didn’t accomplish our goal, but I’m still proud of them.”
Scott Mahoney can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @sm_mahoney on Twitter.