This game has been anticipated for a little of a year, ever since Osceola won at home to earn a trip to Lakeland where it captured the Class 9A state championship. The Kowboys returned nearly their entire roster back from last season while Oak Ridge re-loaded and vowed revenge.
In a gym that was thisclose to being beyond capacity and a raucous crowd early, it was an intimidating atmosphere. I’ll go out on a limb and say it impacted the out-of-area referees (required by rule) as there were some very early calls and no-calls that, depended on which side you were on, sent the crowd into a tizzy. The first was a loose ball foul/technical foul on Kowboys’ junior Isaiah Palermo barely in a minute into the contest. That’s two personal fouls and the majority of the first half on the bench. It didn’t take long for the whistle to impact Oak Ridge, as Marcus Taylor got tapped with a breakaway, intentional foul as well as a technical. Another key player was hit with two fouls and sat down. The following minute, Kissimmee big man Omar Payne was called for a personal foul and technical foul in a loose ball scrum for a rebound. You guessed it: two personal fouls and the remainder of the half on the bench. So the body count in two and one-half minutes was three technical fouls, six personal fouls, and three of the ten starters on the bench for most of the first half.
Yes, they still played basketball. Oak Ridge got out to a solid start and led 8-4 midway thru the period. Their lead was 12-6 with three minutes to go when Osceola got energized with some surprising bench play to draw within one at 14-13 two minutes later. That would be the score heading into the second period.
One would think that with two of their key players out that Osceola would be unable to hang with the Pioneers. Nothing could be further from the truth and score was tied at fifteen at the five minute mark. Emmitt Williams of Oak Ridge pounded home a dunk to take back the lead but Armani Thomas of Osceola connected on a three to give the Kowboys their first lead of the game. Oak Ridge responded right back and kept the lead the remainder of the quarter. At the half, Oak Ridge was up by five at 29-24.
Palermo and Payne re-entered the game after the break and immediately produced positive plays. It took around two minutes for Osceola to rip off a 6-0 run to take a 30-29 lead. Not long thereafter, Williams of Oak Ridge was called for his fourth foul. Oak Ridge didn’t falter and re-captured the lead. Up three at 35-32 with just over two minutes to play, Oak Ridge’s Antwaan Jones was tagged with his fourth foul. Now it was the Pioneers turn to play without two key components for long stretches. Osceola tied the game at 35 with two minutes left in the third and led by two at 40-38 when the horn sounded.
A telling play took place in that third quarter. Niven Glover of Oak Ridge got a steal near mid-court and almost instantly threw down a dunk in traffic. Several student fans near the court lost their minds in excitement and rushed the floor. Security and school personnel had to clear the floor, taking a couple of minutes to do so. Yet no warning or penalty was signaled by the referees. Call it the turning point that never came.
Entering the final period, the scoreboard showed something remarkable: 8 team fouls for Oak Ridge, 0 for Osceola. Osceola tied the score at 40 quickly in the period and then connected on a three to go up 43-40 with 6:34 to play. After a Pioneers timeout, both Williams and Jones re-entered the game. Jones scored couple of quick baskets to give Oak Ridge back the lead. With four minutes to play Josh Marte scored at the rim to make it 47-46 Kowboys. Williams of Oak Ridge drew a foul and tied the game after connecting on one of two free throws. Osceola grabbed back the lead at 49-47 after Payne threw down a dunk at the 2:39 mark. Undeterred, Rob Perry of Oak Ridge drained a three from well past NBA range to put his team up by one. Amazingly, Osceola responded in kind with a three from Thomas to make the score 52-50 in favor of Osceola with 1:45 to play. Williams was fouled on the next Oak Ridge possession, making one of two free throws. That’s when the Pioneers broke out their press and Osceola got bit by the turnover bug. Perry got a steal and score to give his team the lead at 53-52 with under one minute to play. Next Kowboys possession, same result, but this time it was Damon Harge with the swipe and score to give Oak Ridge a 55-52 lead with thirty seconds left. After a timeout, Osceola got a good look at a three from Jaduhkiss Soto. He was fouled with sixteen seconds left and was rewarded with three free throws. He made the first, but missed the second. He connected on the third to draw within one at 55-54.
Osceola had no choice but to foul to get the ball back. However, they didn’t foul right away and let several precious seconds run off the clock. Taylor of Oak Ridge was ultimately fouled with 3.5 seconds remaining. He nailed both free throws, essentially nailing Osceola’s coffin with them. A half-court heave by the Kowboys went “Florida State” (wide right) and Oak Ridge heads to Lakeland with a chance at a state championship by the score of 57-54.
The Pioneers were led by Perry with 19 points while Jones added 17, and Williams contributed eleven.
For Osceola, both Thomas and Soto tallied ten points each.