Note: This story was last updated at 4 p.m. March 18.
MURFREESBORO—Oak Ridge kept it close, but Memphis East prevailed 63-60 in a state semifinal basketball game in Murfreesboro on Friday.
The season is over for the Wildcats (31-3). The Mustangs, last year’s Class AAA champion, move on to this year’s BlueCross Basketball Championship game against Southwind in Murphy Center at Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday afternoon.
Oak Ridge, which started four seniors, led most of the first half against Memphis East (32-3), which is ranked number two in the nation, according to Wildcats Coach Aaron Green. The Mustangs, a tall team that started two sophomores and two juniors, took their first lead late in the second quarter on a three-point shot by senior Jayden Hardaway with 1:40 remaining in the half.
The two teams traded leads in the third quarter, and Oak Ridge led 44-43 at the end of three.
But Memphis East outscored Oak Ridge 20-16 in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
The Wildcats were led by junior point guard Levert Smith, who is normally not a top scorer. He had 14 points, eight assists, three rebounds, and two steals.
Smith, who is 5-foot-9, didn’t seem intimidated by Memphis East’s height advantage. At various times, the Mustangs had five players on the floor who range from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-8. Sometimes Smith would shoot after driving to the basket, and at other times, he would pass to another Wildcat after drawing defenders to him.
“I think Levert Smith’s play as point guard was key,” Green said.
The Wildcats executed their game plan about as well as they could have, Green said.
Oak Ridge was only down two points with 28.9 seconds left in the game after a defensive block by senior Tee Higgins led to a layup by senior Anthony Gibson.
But the Wildcats missed a few late scoring opportunities, including two layups and a difficult half-court three-point attempt in the final six seconds.
Sometimes those shots go a team’s way, and other times they don’t. It was a 50/50 game, Oak Ridge senior forward Tyshawn Young said.
“We could have won that game,” he said. “Things just didn’t go our way.”
Still, Young said, “I feel like we gave it all.”
The Wildcats played five seniors during the game. It’s considered one of the best senior classes, if not the best, to ever come through Oak Ridge. Among the accomplishments: going undefeated in District 3-AAA during the regular season two years in a row, and winning consecutive District 3-AAA and Region 2-AAA championships.
“These are like my brothers,” Oak Ridge senior guard Tajion Jones said. “I love them like my own. I’m glad I had this run with them. I wouldn’t change anything.”
Oak Ridge has made it to a Class AAA sectional game for the past five years, and the Wildcats have made it to the state tournament four of the past five years, finishing as state runner-up in 2014.
Besides Smith, three other Wildcats scored in double digits Friday. Jones and Young each had 12 points, and Gibson added 11. Young pulled down five rebounds, and Gibson had two assists.
Higgins led Oak Ridge in rebounding with seven. He was also 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
Higgins and Young were both named to the Division I Class AAA All Tournament Team on Saturday.
The Friday game between Oak Ridge and Memphis East was played at a slower pace than normal. That was intentional.
“They score a lot on fast breaks and offensive rebounds,” Green said.
Oak Ridge slowed down the game and “packed the paint” to prevent penetration by the Memphis East guards, Mustangs Coach Rocky Jackson said.
“It was pretty successful,” he said.
Memphis East ended up settling for shots, Jackson said.
Like the Wildcats, the Mustangs are normally a team that likes to “get out and run.”
Memphis East, which, like Oak Ridge, can average more than 80 points a game, hasn’t found itself behind very often. But the team has trailed in some “big-time tournaments,” so the Mustangs kept their composure even when they were behind Oak Ridge, Jackson said.
Memphis East junior guard Alex Lomax, named Mr. Basketball in Class AAA two years in a row, poured it on near the end.
Three straight steals by the Mustangs late in the fourth quarter led to two layups and free throws by Lomax, Jackson said.
“That kid, he just turns it on,” Jackson said. “When it’s crunch time, that’s when he’s at his best.”
Memphis East was led by 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Chandler Lawson, who was named most valuable player of the tournament on Saturday, with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Lomax and junior guard T.J. Moss, who made four three-point shots, each scored 14. Lomax also had seven assists and three steals.
Oak Ridge was a tough team in a Class AAA quarterfinal two years ago, when they also lost to Memphis East, and they were tough again—and well-coached again—this year, Jackson said.
Coming into the game, neither team had lost to a Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, or TSSAA, team this season. They had been ranked number one (Memphis East) and number two (Oak Ridge) in Associated Press basketball polls.
Jackson said Memphis East tried to take Jones and Higgins out of Wednesday’s game, and keep Young off the glass.
They intentionally tried to keep the basketball in the hands of Smith, knowing that he wasn’t normally a top scorer.
“We wanted to make him a scorer tonight,” Jackson said of Smith. “He did a great job stepping up to the challenge.”
Green said one of the keys to staying in the game against Memphis East was limiting the Oak Ridge turnovers to six.
He thought the Wildcats needed to make six to eight three-point shots to win. They only made four (on 14 attempts).
Still, Oak Ridge had a shot at winning, Green said.
“It was a really good season,” Young said. “I’m disappointed in how it ended. It’s unfortunate, but I’m proud of our team.”
Besides Higgins, Young, and Lawson, other players named to the Division I Class AAA All Tournament Team on Saturday were Dandridge and Moss, and Mark Freeman, Carlos Marshall, and Christian Jones of Southwind.
The Mustangs have been in the state tournament each of the past three years.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See the final Oak Ridge-Memphis East game statistics here.
See the Class AAA State Boys’ Basketball Tournament Bracket here.
See more photos here.
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