MURFREESBORO—The Oak Ridge Wildcats gave up an 11-point lead in a series of turnovers in the fourth quarter before losing to the Blackman Blaze 60-58 in a state championship game in Murfreesboro on Saturday.
Wildcats senior Jaylin Henderson had a game-high 24 points in the Class AAA final, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the combined scoring of four Blaze players who scored 10 or more each. The Wildcats were named 2014 State Runner-Up.
Oak Ridge (32-8) looked like it was headed to victory in the third quarter and early in the fourth, but the Blaze (28-6) stepped up the pressure and the Wildcats weren’t able to protect the ball.
Oak Ridge Coach Aaron Green said a series of five fourth-quarter turnovers, including back-to-back steals, shifted the momentum. Many of the Wildcats’ turnovers led to easy layups, and the Blaze went on a 14-0 scoring run at the Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
“We couldn’t get the bleeding to stop,” Green said. “You can’t turn it over.”
Oak Ridge had a total of 21 turnovers in the game to Blackman’s 11, and the Blaze had 10 steals, compared to one for the Wildcats. The numbers were worse for Oak Ridge in the second half and hurt significantly late in the game.
The fourth-quarter scoring run helped Blackman convert a 29-40 deficit early in the last period into a 52-46 lead with 1:42 remaining.
“We didn’t execute well at the end,” Henderson said. “We just had to execute, and we didn’t.”
Blackman Coach Barry Wortman, who briefly coached at Oak Ridge before resigning in 2010, said his Murfreesboro team knew it had to find a way to scramble and create plays in the second half. During the third quarter, they trailed by up to a dozen points.
“We were able to muddy that game up, down by 12,” said Wortman, who coached a state championship girls’ team at Hickman County in 1997. “It was possession by possession.”
Green said the Wildcats played well on defense, holding the Blaze to 38 percent shooting from two-point range while Oak Ridge shot 50 percent. The two teams were roughly even in rebounding, with 25 rebounds for Oak Ridge and 27 for Blackman.
“You’ve got to give them credit for forcing the turnovers,” Green said. “We just couldn’t regroup and got out of sync.”
Thirteen of Oak Ridge’s turnovers and seven of Blackman’s steals occurred in the second half.
“We knew what this team was capable of,” Blaze junior Jauan Jennings said of the Wildcats. “How much did we want it? We went out and grabbed it.”
Jennings scored 14 for Blackman and was named 2014 Class AAA All-Tournament MVP.
Three Wildcats players—Henderson and seniors Kevin Steen and Isaac Merian—were named to the All-Tournament Team, along with other players from Blackman and semifinal teams Arlington and Brentwood.
Though the Wildcats appeared dejected after the game when they received a 2014 State Runner-Up trophy, some still struck a positive tone.
“We had a great season,” said Henderson, who shot 10-12 from the free throw line on Saturday and hit a three-point shot at the buzzer to narrow the Blaze lead to two.
“This is a big improvement for the community,” said Steen, who scored eight but fouled out in the fourth quarter. He said the season forced a renewed respect for the Wildcats.
It was the first trip to the state championship game for the boys’ basketball team in 51 years. The team won in its previous two visits in 1961 and 1963.
The Blackman boys’ and girls’ teams swept the Class AAA tournament this year for the school’s first TSSAA state team titles.
Other top scorers for the Blaze on Saturday were senior Reid Pierce with 13, senior Lukas Hart with 12, and senior Andrew Rogan with 10. Jennings and Rogan both shot 8-10 from the free throw line in the second half. Many of the Blaze points—24 of 60—came on free throws in the second half, including on intentional fouls late in the game as Oak Ridge tried to regain possession in a last-ditch effort to regain the lead. Blackman had no free throws in the first.
Green said the Wildcats might recognize the accomplishments of the game and the season in a month or so.
“It’s a little hard to grasp right now just because of the loss,” said Green, who played in three state championships at Sweetwater High School and won one. Green was part of the team that won the Class AA state championship in 1994, when he was named the state tournament’s most valuable player.
He said the Wildcats did everything they were supposed to do to put themselves in a position to win on Saturday. He cited their performance on defense and rebounding. Merian, who scored eight points for the Wildcats, had nine rebounds, and senior Seth Davis, who also scored eight, had seven.
But, “You’ve got to take care of the ball, especially late in the fourth quarter when you’ve got a lead,” Green said. “We came up a little bit short, but we’ll be back.”
See the stats for the 2014 Division I Class AAA Boys’ Basketball State Tournament Championship game here.
Note: This story was last updated at 7:45 p.m. March 16.