Three years ago, a group of young, talented Langston Middle School ballers watched with great enthusiasm as some of their childhood playground idols captured a district title for Oberlin en route to a Sweet 16 appearance.
Those same youngsters, now juniors and sophomores, strode confidently last Wednesday onto that same Division 3 hardwood in Canton to play their very own regional semifinal game against local favorite St. Thomas Aquinas.
And, in a two-overtime thriller, the Knights prevailed 87-80.
From the opening minutes, it was clear neither team would run away and hide. Aggressive defense and physical play underneath ruled the day. Over the course of 40 minutes, neither team led by more than six points until the Knights’ final-second free throws put the ending margin at seven.
With both teams looking to score from the outside, Oberlin drained six threes in the first half, including period enders by Mark Robinson Jr. to wrap the first quarter and David Payne III to close the half.
Adding to the long-range shooting gallery, Zion Hicks knocked down a pair of treys while Caleb Hughley and David Carter added one each.
All told, the six three-pointers were more than half the Phoenix point total as they led 33-32 going into the break.
While the Phoenix kept up on the scoreboard, they also accumulated fouls, and the Knights took advantage. Oberlin shot only one for four from the charity stripe in the half while the Knights converted on 10 of 14 tosses during that span.
To start the second half, Oberlin pushed its one-point halftime lead out to 46-41 on a couple of Hughley buckets, another Hicks three-pointer, and points down low from Donald Johnson and David Carter.
During the run, however, Smith picked up his fourth foul and took a seat. The Knights, sensing an opening, cobbled together their longest run (nine points) of the game, converting two Phoenix turnovers and draining four more foul shots.
Aquinas closed the third quarter with a 50-46 lead.
That edge didn’t endure as Oberlin’s Johnson went back to work down low, picking up three quick buckets in the paint, and Smith returned to the action adding a driving lay-in of his own to square the game at 54 midway into the fourth quarter.
Aquinas called time, regrouped, and with a couple of three-pointers grabbed a four point lead, 60-56, before the Phoenix struck back with 10 unanswered points of their own behind another Hicks trey (he had four for the game), a Payne trey, and FTs from Johnson and Carter.
With a minute to play, Oberlin stood atop the scoreboard 66-60.
But oh how quickly things can change.
Free throws, turnovers, and an old-fashioned three-point play and suddenly the game was knotted at 67-67 with 19 ticks on the clock. Oberlin got a good look from deep as the quarter ended, but Hicks’ three-point attempt narrowly bounced away.
The first overtime, like so much that had come before, was nip-and-tuck. Neither team stretched its lead to more than two points, and as the clock wound down Aquinas’ super-guard Jacob Paul (37 points on the night to lead all scorers) drove the lane to tie the score at 75.
For Oberlin, the OT was a costly quarter in the war of attrition, as Phoenix three-point sharpshooter Hicks joined Smith on the bench with his fifth foul.
In the second overtime, Aquinas quickly pushed its lead out to six at 81-75, all from the free throw line, before Payne answered with a three from deep in the corner to cut the lead in half.
But Aquinas kept converting from the line, 28-for-33 on the night (led by Paul’s perfect 11-for-11), to seal the victory for the Knights by the final 87-80 tally.
Johnson (22) and Hughley (21) led the Phoenix point parade in which seven players contributed to a balanced attack.
Coach Kurt Russell reflected on the game after talking with his team in the locker room: “St. Thomas Aquinas is a very good club and Paul played a stellar game with 37 points, so give them credit. But at the same time, we could kick ourselves. We had control of the game in the final minute but we turned the ball over a few times. We’ve gotten better on that during the year, but we need to get better still. Our guys played an excellent game to be in that position, though, so I’m very proud of our boys and the effort they put forth. Everything was left on the floor.”
Despite the loss, this was a most memorable experience for the team and followers. Seniors Tre’Von Jackson, David Carter, and Malik Aguiniga will be missed next year, but the rest of the team is already looking ahead to next year.
As Hughley said following the tough loss, “Next year starts tomorrow. We want to work hard all year and get back here next season.”
Russell’s team closes the year at 19-7, as district champions, and as Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division runners-up.
Photos by Erik Andrews Oberlin’s David Payne III goes airborne in search of a basket in last Wednesday’s 87-80 heartbreaker. St. Thomas Aquinas won in double overtime.