Oak Ridge senior Tajion Jones bounced back with 24 points and the Wildcats beat a young, talented Bearden team 86-73 in the Region 2-AAA championship at home on Thursday.
It’s the second consecutive regional championship for the Wildcats and their third in the past five years.
Oak Ridge (29-2) will now play David Crockett, the Region 1-AAA runner-up, in a sectional at Wildcat Arena at 7 p.m. Monday.
Bearden (21-9) will play at Science Hill, the Region 1 champion, in another sectional at 7 p.m. Monday.
The eight sectionals will determine which teams get to play in the Class AAA state basketball tournament from March 15-18 at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.
Oak Ridge Coach Aaron Green said the Thursday night win over Bearden, which started four sophomores, was a collective effort.
“I thought it was a team win on both sides of the floor,” Green said. “Bearden is a really good basketball team.”
Coming into the regional tournament, Bearden was the District 4-AAA tournament champion, while Oak Ridge, which started four seniors, was the District 3-AAA tournament champion.
One of the highlights of the Thursday night regional championship game at Wildcat Arena: Jones, who had been held to six and seven points in the first two regional tournament games, scored a game-high 24. Jones had hit only one three-pointer in each of the first two games. On Thursday, he made six.
“It feels good to come out here and do what I’m supposed to be doing,” said the 6-foot-4 Jones, a Mr. Basketball finalist.
Senior Tyshawn Young, who got into early foul trouble but battled through it, had nine rebounds in the first 1.5 quarters, Green said. He finished with 12 points.
After Young picked up his third foul at 5:42 in the second quarter, sophomore Herbert Booker came off the bench. He knocked down a three-pointer 12 seconds later.
“That was huge,” Green said. “He didn’t fear the moment at all.”
In the next two minutes, Booker, a 6-foot-1 guard, dove to deflect a Bulldogs pass out of bounds, scooped in a layup around 6-foot-7 Bearden junior Justin Ketterl, and drove for a layup between 6-foot-6 sophomore Drew Pember and 6-foot-3 sophomore Roman Robinson.
Booker scored 12 points for the Wildcats, who had 11 three-point shots total.
Senior Tee Higgins had a double-double—11 points and a dozen rebounds—along with a dunk and several blocks. Higgins played unselfishly, Green said. Twice in the fourth quarter, he drove into the lane and then passed the ball back out to senior Anthony Gibson for three-point shots.
Gibson, who led the Wildcats in the previous three games, scored 20 on Thursday. Three of those were three-pointers.
Green said Gibson has spent extra time shooting in the gym, even when he didn’t have to.
“He’s worked himself into a very good player,” Green said. “He’s had a very focused approach this last month.”
Gibson was named most valuable player of the Region 2-AAA tournament.
“It feels really good,” Gibson said.
The Wildcats are still playing without senior E.J. Bush, the most valuable player of last year’s regional tournament. But it is possible that Bush, who had a knee injury in December that required surgery, could be back before the season is over, depending upon whether Oak Ridge keeps winning.
Bearden Coach Jeremy Parrott said the Bulldogs have a “lot of things to clean up,” but they also have a “lot of things we can build on.”
Oak Ridge shot the basketball well and rebounded well, Parrott said. The Wildcats also have size and athleticism.
He said rebounding helped Oak Ridge establish an early double-digit lead. The Wildcats led 46-32 at the half. That gave them a cushion. Bearden would go on scoring runs, but couldn’t narrow the Oak Ridge lead, which was as large as 22 points, to less than about eight or 10, Parrott said.
“We were behind the eight ball all night,” he said.
Bearden was led by sophomore Trent Stephney with 23 points and sophomore Ques Glover with 21. Robinson added 13 for the Bulldogs.
Jones said the Wildcats worked to prevent Stephney and Glover from getting open shots.
“They’re really good,” Jones said.
Jones, the District 3 tournament MVP this year, was also named to the Region 2-AAA All Tournament Team on Thursday. So were Higgins and Young.
Glover, Robinson, and Stephney of Bearden were also named to the All Tournament Team.
Other Region 2 players named to the All Tournament Team were Trevon Hill of Clinton; Tristen Waite of Hardin Valley; Isaiah Keeter of Karns; Joe Anderson and Easton Upchurch of Maryville; Desmond Billingsley and Matt Samples of Powell; and Tyrone Patterson of West.
Oak Ridge and David Crockett (19-15) also met in a Class AAA sectional at Wildcat Arena last year. The Pioneers ended the Wildcats’ season in that 73-70 overtime loss, denying Oak Ridge a fourth consecutive trip to the state basketball tournament. But the top three David Crockett scorers in 2016—Patrick Good, Dustin Day, and Brendan Coleman—were all seniors then and no longer on the team.
That Pioneers team ended the season 30-6 after a state quarterfinal loss to Station Camp. This year’s team is 19-15 so far.
David Crockett has lost to Science Hill four times this year, while Oak Ridge has defeated the Hilltoppers twice.
Oak Ridge beat Karns in the Region 2-AAA championship last year.
The Oak Ridge Lady Wildcats (29-3) also won their second consecutive regional championship this week, beating Hardin Valley 71-42 at home on Wednesday. They will play Daniel Boone (29-5) at Wildcat Arena at 7 p.m. Saturday.
The two girls’ teams have had common opponents. They’ve both won in games against Greeneville and Science Hill, and both lost to Bradley Central. Oak Ridge has defeated South Greene, while Daniel Boone lost to the Lady Rebels.
It’s the second consecutive year that the Oak Ridge boys’ and girls’ basketball teams both finished the regular season undefeated in District 3-AAA and won both the District 3-AAA and Region 2-AAA championships.
The Lady Wildcats finished as state runner-up in Class AAA last year.
See the Class AAA East regional boys’ basketball tournament bracket here.
See the Class AAA East regional girls’ basketball tournament bracket here.
See more photos here.
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