‘It means everything’: Oak Mountain wins first basketball championship in school history
By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor
BIRMINGHAM – Trailing 27-22 and on their heels early in the fourth quarter following a 15-5 run from Enterprise, the Oak Mountain Eagles had a choice to make inside Bartow Arena on Wednesday, March 3—win a state championship or go home heartbroken.
Despite it being their first championship game appearance in school history, a team that hadn’t wavered all season through different adversity, didn’t waver in the biggest moment of the season.
The Eagles got one 3-pointer apiece from Matthew Heiberger and Noah Young, three points from Will Shaver, a layup from Wilder Evers and six free throws and a layup from Evan Smith to finish the final five minutes on a 19-10 run and win their first basketball championship in school history by a final score of 41-37.
“These kids never wavered,” head coach Chris Love said after the historic win. “We could have folded in, but we didn’t. We just kept on fighting. I can’t be any prouder of our guys.”
Like much of the season, Oak Mountain faced early adversity when starting guard Brady Dunn went down with a left-knee injury in the first three minutes, which forced him to miss the rest of game.
But despite injuries to four of the five starters early in the season, despite players battling through pain after that, despite the early injury to Dunn and despite the five-point deficit in the fourth quarter of the state championship game, Oak Mountain never lost sight of the final goal.
“Brady goes down for us early and that’s kind of typical of our year,” Love said. “I’ve never been around a year like this. We had a lot of adversity and it slapped us right in the face again. But these kids never wavered. I’m just so happy for our coaches and our kids.”
It was a moment that wouldn’t have been possible without the game’s MVP and senior Noah Young, who stepped up throughout the game, but more importantly was the steady hand for the Eagles as the only senior in the starting lineup all season.
His focus always remained helping this team redeem last year’s Final-Four loss to Lee Montgomery and winning a championship this year for his teammates and the community.
“It means everything in my life to be able to do this,” Young said. “To be able to do this and be able to do this for the community, my teammates and everyone else around me. Most of my teammates, we’ve been playing together for multiple years and we’ve been talking about this since we are young, so it feels good to go out accomplishing this goal.”
He helped lead the Eagles through all the adversity this year, and that continued in the state championship game through early struggles offensively for Oak Mountain.
The Eagles jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a layup from Smith, before Enterprise came right back with three straight points.
But Oak Mountain ended the quarter on a 5-0 run behind a floater from Young and a 3-pointer from Evers to take a 7-3 lead at the end of the one, and the lead didn’t change hands again until the fourth quarter.
One reason it didn’t change hands, however, was due to both offenses struggling in the opening half.
Enterprise tied the game early in the second quarter with a 4-0 run, but Oak Mountain ended the quarter with two free throws from Shaver and a layup from Smith in the final 20 seconds to take an 11-8 lead into the half.
“The way this game went is exactly how it needed to go for us. It was ugly, it wasn’t pretty, it was tough, it was hard,” Love said of the slow pace in the first half. “We just had to grind it out and just be resilient through it.”
And in the third quarter, both teams found more of a rhythm after getting their muscles warmed up.
After Enterprise cut the deficit to one point, Oak Mountain eventually jumped up by seven points at 19-12 after Heiberger and Young hit back-to-back 3-pointers.
That became the Eagles’ largest lead of the game, however, as the Wildcats battled back with an 8-3 run to close the third quarter and trim the deficit to 22-20.
Just like the night before when the Wildcats ended the third quarter on an 8-0 run to tie the semifinal game with Spain Park before going on to win in double overtime, they had gained confidence.
That carried over to the fourth quarter when Enterprise extended the run to 15-5 and took its first lead since 3-2 at 27-22.
Smith answered with a layup through contact, but he missed a free throw that would have completed an and-1. To that point in the game, Oak Mountain was 3-11 from the line.
But then came the big basket from Heiberger, as the sophomore buried a 3-pointer with 4:55 left in the game to even the score at 27-27.
“Mathew does some really good things for us just like that three,” Love said after the game. “He was huge for us in the second half. He’s just a tough, hard-nosed kid that never backs down.”
Enterprise answered with a steal and a layup to regain the lead, but Evers came back with a strong take and a make on a highly contested layup to tie it right back up.
In a back-and-forth sprint to the finish, the Wildcats responded with an offensive rebound and put back from Josh McCray, but Young had his senior moment in the biggest way.
He drained a 3-pointer with 2:42 to play to put the Eagles in front 32-31, and they never trailed the rest of the way.
“Noah Young, I was about ready to run out there and hug him on that go ahead three in the fourth,” Love said. “He has been a big leader for us all year.”
As a leader, his nerves were present, but Young never was going to pass up an opportunity to give his team the lead late in a state championship game.
“It was a very intense game and my last, so my nerves kicked in,” he said. “I was just living in the moment and listening to coach and what he said. When it’s a smart shot and you have it take it.”
And took it he did, completely swinging the momentum of the game.
That was followed by a layup in the post and a free throw from Shaver to extend Oak Mountain’s lead to 35-31 with 1:45 to play.
Enterprise cut it to 36-33 with 57 seconds to play, but Smith was foul on the ensuing inbounds play and went on to drain two free throws. He followed that with three more down the stretch to ice the four-point championship win.
“All of us would agree that if we need a big free throw, he’s the one we want at the line,” Love said.
Just as big as those free throws late was the rim protection of Shaver. For much of the game, the Eagles struggled with giving up offensive rebounds, which led to 15 second-chance points, but in the final quarter, they only gave up four total.
“Coming in, every game, it’s me trying to do what the team needs to win, and today it was protecting the rim,” Shaver said.
Shaver finished with seven rebounds and two blocked shots, while altering several others late in the game.
“He’s been battling through pain since surgery earlier in the year, but Will sucked it up and got some big rebounds down there for us late,” Love said.
Shaver also had seven points, while Smith led the way with 13 points and added four assists and four rebounds with two steals. Beyond that, Young chipped in 10 points and three rebounds.
Heiberger finished with six points off the bench and went on to lead the Eagles with eight rebounds in the win while also recording two steals and two blocked shots. Evers added five points and two blocks, while Giegel posted four rebounds in his five minutes.
All of them came together at the beginning of the year determined to do what it would take to win a state championship, and on March 3, they came together to accomplish their goal.
“It’s just amazing to see how this journey unfolded,” Young said. “It was a goal we set at the beginning of the season, and it was a goal we weren’t going to let go of and let anything stop us from accomplishing it. I’m glad everybody did what they needed to do. It took the whole team, the community, the coaches and everything folded together to help us reach our goal.”
Photos available at Shelbycountyphotos.com.