Down early in the season opener, Oberlin staged a furious rally to pull even with North Ridgeville at 69-69 in the final minute, but ultimately fell 73-69 to the Rangers.
They rebounded in the second contest of the Liberty Ford Tip-Off Classic, picking up a 61-56 victory over the Hawken Hawks.
This year, the Phoenix boys are competing as a Division 4 team. At the Tip-Off Classic, they were pitted against bigger Division 1 and 2 foes.
“It really gives us a good feel for some of the toughest competition we’re likely to face all year,” said coach Kurt Russell as his team prepared to take the floor for the opener against the Rangers.
With only two players from this year’s team seeing varsity action last year, the Phoenix are fielding a very young and inexperienced squad.
In the first game, the young guns’ nerves showed early, as the Rangers, behind some hot long-range shooting, jumped out to a 29-6 lead. Russell spent a couple of time outs to cool off the sizzling Ranger marksmen and steady his own charges.
Coming out of the second time out, Oberlin scored the last five points in the first quarter to trail 29-11 after eight minutes. With senior Justin Smith coming off the bench to provide an offensive spark, Oberlin narrowed that gap further, entering the halftime break down 38-29.
The Phoenix struggled to close the gap further, still trailing by 10 with three minutes remaining in the contest. Coming out of another time out, Oberlin’s defense amped up the on-ball pressure, forcing three turnovers while the Rangers failed to convert from the free throw line. Combine that with a couple of clutch threes from first year Trajen Chambers, a fast break layup from Giles Harrell III, and two free throws from Smith, and suddenly it was tied with 26 ticks on the clock.
The Rangers regained their composure and closed out the Phoenix with four successive free throws for the final 73-69 margin.
Despite the loss, Russell was pleased with much of the play after the first quarter. “The team showed tremendous character being down 23 and coming all the way back to tie the score at 69 giving us a chance to win,” he said.
A day later, the team was back in Vermilion to face the Hawks, another tough Division 2 foe. Proving that last year’s win over the Hawks was not a fluke, Oberlin again fell behind early but played well down the stretch for the first win of the season.
In a physical contest, Oberlin outdid Hawken at the charity stripe, nailing 25 free throws to a mere nine for the Hawks. Several of those came in the closing moments to secure the Oberlin victory. Yarber and Smith again led the Phoenix scorers.
“I’m so very happy for the players to experience early success against a quality opponent,” Russell said. “For a young team, it’s crucial to get an early victory to gain confidence moving forward.”
Oberlin opens up Patriot Athletic Conference play on Friday when the team travels to Brooklyn to face the Hurricanes. The team remains on the road next Tuesday when at Keystone for a key cross-over game against the Wildcats. Both games are slated for 7:30 p.m. starts.