Maryville senior guard Easton Upchurch scored 25 points and made seven three-point shots on Tuesday, but it wasn’t enough to keep Oak Ridge from advancing to its fifth straight regional championship.
The Wildcats were held to their lowest offensive output of the season in the 46-43 Region 2-AAA semifinal win over the Rebels at Wildcat Arena. No Oak Ridge player scored more than 13, which is unusual.
Maryville Coach Mark Eldridge said Oak Ridge has better players than the Rebels, so his team tried to limit the number of possessions. More possessions mean the better team wins, Eldridge said.
The Wildcats probably had about half as many possessions as they normally do, Oak Ridge Coach Aaron Green said. Maryville has guards who are good enough that the Rebels could run time off the clock—and they did.
“Sometimes you have to find ways to grind them out,” Green said. “Our guys haven’t had a lot of close games, and our guys kept their composure.”
Oak Ridge (28-2) advances to play Bearden (21-8) in the Region 2-AAA championship at Wildcat Arena at 7 p.m. Thursday. The season is over for Maryville (24-6).
“That’s the toughest game of the year to win,” Green said of the Tuesday night elimination game.
The Maryville strategy of limiting possessions against Oak Ridge didn’t work, although it appeared at times that it might, especially in the second half.
Maryville had two brief leads in the first quarter, but then trailed by up to 12 points through the next two quarters. The Wildcats led 12-8 at the end of the first quarter and 23-14 at the half.
But that lead evaporated by the end of the third quarter. Maryville senior T.D. Blackmon, who was defended by Oak Ridge senior Tee Higgins, passed to Upchurch on the right wing. Upchurch hit the three-point shot to tie the game at 32 at the buzzer. It was his third three-point shot in the third quarter.
Oak Ridge soon regained the lead on a takeaway and layup by senior Anthony Gibson, who led the Wildcats with 13 points. Oak Ridge was ahead 34-32 with 6:50 remaining in the fourth quarter.
But the Rebels took back the lead, 34-35, on another three-point shot by Upchurch with about five minutes remaining.
Oak Ridge junior Levert Smith, who had given Upchurch space on an earlier three-point shot, made one of his own to regain the lead for the Wildcats, 37-35, with 4:34 left in the game.
The Rebels regained the lead one more time, again on an Upchurch three-pointer, before the Wildcats took it for good, 39-38, at 3:25 on two three throws by Gibson. Oak Ridge widened the lead to three points, 41-38, on a takeaway by Smith that led to a shot from the left corner by Gibson.
Oak Ridge scored its final five points on free throws, including two by Gibson, and one each by Higgins, senior Tajion Jones, and sophomore Herbert Booker, who hit three of four free throws in the second half.
The final two minutes were marked by turnovers, timeouts, and at least five missed shots by Maryville.
Blackmon, who scored a game-high 23 points for Maryville in a Region 2 championship win against Oak Ridge in March 2015, didn’t score his first two points of this year’s semifinal until late in the fourth quarter, with about 31.6 seconds remaining.
Maryville junior Christian Markham hit one final three-point shot to narrow the Oak Ridge lead to 46-43 at the final buzzer.
“I thought we played our guts out,” Eldridge said. “They made a couple of plays that we didn’t.”
Green praised Gibson for the huge steal and layup in the fourth quarter, and his 4-for-4 shooting from the free throw line in that quarter. Eight of Gibson’s 13 points were in the final quarter.
“For him to have eight in the fourth, that’s clutch,” Green said. “I’m just really proud of him.”
Gibson said the team is balanced, so when some players are defended well or aren’t shooting as well as they normally do, others can step up. Gibson has led Oak Ridge in each of its last three games. He scored a game-high 18 points in the Region 2-AAA quarterfinal elimination game against West at Wildcat Arena on Saturday, and last week, he led Oak Ridge with 24 points as the Wildcats won their fifth straight District 3-AAA championship with an 86-58 defeat of Powell.
Asked about the slower pace and fewer possessions in the Tuesday night semifinal game, Gibson said the Wildcats kept their composure.
Green also gave credit to Higgins, who scored 12 points, for holding Blackmon to two points and causing him to foul out. Blackmon is one of Maryville’s two best players, Green said.
“I though Tee did a really, really good job guarding him (Blackmon),” Green said.
Oak Ridge was undefeated in District 3-AAA this year and won the District 3 tournament championship. Maryville finished the regular season first in District 4-AAA, but lost the District 4 championship to Bearden.
Oak Ridge played Bearden early in the regular season. The Wildcats won that November 25 game 66-63. It was the first game back for Higgins, who initially wasn’t going to play basketball this year in order to focus on football.
Green said the Bulldogs are a young, very talented team with three really good guards. Bearden has speed and quickness and plays hard, Green said.
Bearden advanced to the Region 2 championship by beating Powell 71-65 in the other semifinal game at Wildcat Arena on Tuesday. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 26-13 lead in the first quarter, but the Panthers (22-10) outscored Bearden 52-45 in the next three quarters.
Bearden was led by sophomore Trent Stephney with 22 points and sophomore Ques Glover with 19. Sophomore Roman Robinson added 12, and sophomore Drew Pember scored 11.
Matt Samples of Powell, the District 3 tournament runner-up, had a game-high 23 points, Desmond Billingsley scored 17, and Jack Richards added 11.
The previous low score for the Wildcats this year was in a 53-47 loss against Wayne (Ohio) at the Arby’s Classic in Bristol. Oak Ridge was playing without both Higgins and senior E.J. Bush in that game. (Bush is still out from a December knee injury.)
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