With an aggressive defense challenging the ball up and down the court, Oberlin claimed the Wooster Division 3 District title on Friday for the second time in four years with a superb 56-51 win over (Apple Creek) Waynedale.
The top-seeded Golden Bears came to the district tournament as reigning Wayne County conference champions, boasting an 18-5 mark on the season.
The Phoenix, however, were not intimidated by the impressive resume, but rather went right to work from the opening tip and stayed focused throughout the game.
Recognizing that his team’s stifling defense was a key difference-maker, Oberlin coach Kurt Russell noted, “I thought we played probably our best defensive game of the year. Waynedale runs so many sets at you. We knew if we could handle some of their low screens that we could be successful. I’m just proud of the boys. They were dialed in and really stuck to the game plan.”
A back-and-forth first quarter ended with junior guard Caleb Hughley launching a Steph Curry-like dagger from mid-court that caught nothing but net, giving the Phoenix a 15-12 lead. It was a lead the Phoenix never relinquished.
As sophomore forward Justin Smith headed to the bench with his second foul, the Phoenix faithful had no worries as senior Tre’Von Jackson picked up where Smith left off.
He filled it up both from inside and out, scoring 12 of the team’s 14 points in the second quarter. Jackson’s trey at the buzzer sent Oberlin to the locker room with a 29-24 cushion.
In a contest marked by numerous small runs and changes in momentum, Oberlin couldn’t quite find the key basket to push the lead to double digits. The Phoenix pulled out to leads of eight and nine points in the second half only to see Waynedale drop in a couple of threes, get an offensive putback, or convert turnovers to turn the game back into a one-possession affair.
Early in the fourth, Oberlin pushed the lead out to 49-41 on a Zion Hicks three-pointer combined with free throw tosses from David Payne III and Smith.
The breathing room quickly evaporated as the Golden Bears converted a couple of Phoenix turnovers into seven points and suddenly trailed by a single point, 49-48. Oberlin’s efforts at the charity stripe (eight-for-10 in the fourth quarter), combined with the tight defense and a couple pivotal rebounds from junior forward Donald Johnson, were the key to slowing the Waynedale run and extending the lead back out to 54-48.
A late Waynedale three was not enough as Payne free throws sealed the win for the Phoenix.
Many on this year’s junior-laden Phoenix team remembered their eighth grade year as they spoke about excitedly following Oberlin’s 2013 high school team to the Sweet 16 and regionals. They agreed that when they reached high school they planned to do the same.
With that goal achieved, they look forward to taking the next step in regional competition.
Oberlin athletic director Ty Stillman, whose tenure began the following year, missed the 2013 run but has enthusiastically embraced the dedicated effort that embodies this year’s team: “Our program under the leadership of coach Russell continues to excel thanks to the coaches and the players who have put in many hours of hard work behind the scenes at the gym, the weight room, the film room, and everywhere else. They’re building a process and a plan with everyone buying in.”
Oberlin faces the Salem district champion (Louisville) St. Thomas Aquinas in the regional semifinals at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9 in Canton.
Photos by Erik Andrews Junior Zion Hicks has room to move in the paint and takes one to the boards in Friday’s district playoff win. Donald Johnson goes vertical in a tip-off against Waynedale.