SPARTA, Tenn. – Ooltewah took White County’s best punch to the gut, caught its breath and decided to fight back.
Jacqueze Robinson and Ben Snider combined for 41 points, Ooltewah overcame a 16-point deficit in the first half and defeated White County, 76-67, Saturday night in the Region 3-AAA tournament quarterfinals in Roy Sewell Gymnasium.
“We put White County out (of the region) two of the last three years and we told our kids all week they would come out hungry,” Owls coach Jesse Nayadley said. “They hit us in the mouth, but we responded.”
Robinson scored a team-high 24 points and Snider, returning from a one-game suspension, had 17 points and 10 rebounds as Ooltewah (18-9) completed District 5-AAA’s sweep of District 6-AAA squads on the day.
Bradley Central beat Cookeville, 66-56, Cleveland knocked off Cumberland County, 54-49, and Walker Valley whipped Warren County, 62-46.
Saturday’s strong showing produced an all-District 5-AAA semifinal round on Tuesday at Cleveland High School.
Ooltewah gets another shot at Walker Valley, which stunned the top-seeded Owls, 62-59, on Caio Hysinger’s half-court buzzer-beater in the District 5-AAA semifinals, at 6 p.m. Bradley Central plays Cleveland at 7:30 p.m.
Daaron Maston scored 13 points and Antonio Jackson added 11 for Ooltewah. Andrew Ware scored nine points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Dalton Nash led White County with 16 points while Cade Crosland had 13 and Kane Young 11.
Knowing Ooltewah had ended their 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons with region tournament victories, the Warriors (19-12) came out strong and served notice that a third postseason win in four years wouldn’t come easy for the Owls.
The Warriors, coached by Eric Mitchell, Nayadley’s teammate for four years at Tennessee Tech University, outscored the Owls, 10-3, over the final 3:51 and ended the first quarter with a 20-11 lead.
An 11-4 spurt to open the second quarter produced a 31-15 advantage and the Warriors had Ooltewah reeling and on the ropes.
“You’re down 16 points and sure, you’re worried,” Nayadley said. “But, I knew if we did what we’re supposed to we could climb back in the game.”
What was the remedy?
“They were outhustling us,” Nayadley said. “Our guys needed to guard their man and be tough. White County was tougher than us in the first 10 minutes. We answered that and now we’re moving on.”
The Owls turned up the thermostat defensively in the final four minutes of the second quarter and that’s almost always a source of fuel for the team’s offense. Ooltewah went on a 12-2 run – Robinson and Maston each scored five points – and closed the deficit to 36-32 at halftime.
Robinson had 12 points at the break.
“He kept us in the first half, no doubt about it,” Nayadley said. “He hit some big shots.”
Right in the middle of that Ooltewah streak, White County’s Allen Newport was flagged for an intentional foul on Maston and within seconds Mitchell was hit with a technical foul.
“The biggest play of the game,” Mitchell said, “was that uncalled for technical foul. I hadn’t had one in 10 years. That was a five-point swing.”
Maston hit 2-of-4 free throws and on the ensuing possession Robinson drilled a 3 from the right wing to pull the Owls within 35-30. Ron King’s drive to the basket cut the Warriors’ lead to 35-32. Newport’s free throw with 15.2 seconds on the clock was White County’s only point in the final 2:30 of the period.
“When we got down by 16 points, we just had to keep playing,” said Robinson, who hit three of Ooltewah’s six 3s – Maston had the other three. “At first we were slacking, but we picked up our intensity in the second half.”
The Owls unleashed another 12-2 run in the third quarter. Snider’s two free throws tied the game at 43 and Robinson’s 3 from the right wing on an assist by Jackson put them ahead, 46-43, their first lead since 4-2.
Two more Snider free throws gave the Owls a 51-47 lead and two more freebies 25 seconds into the fourth quarter enabled Ooltewah to keep at four-point advantage at 54-51.
That started a strong fourth period for Snider, who was relieved that he was able contribute to the big win.
“It killed me sitting out the last game (a 75-69 consolation victory over Cleveland in the district tournament),” Snider said. “I knew at some point in this game my teammates would need me and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Snider was asked how hard he had to work since Wednesday to get back in good graces with Nayadley.
“Shoot, I’m still not in his good graces,” he said. “It’s a day-to-day thing, but I’m on the right track.”
Nash’s driving layup – the Warriors hurt the visitors all night with cutting plays to the hoop – sliced Ooltewah’s lead to 56-53, Ware hit a free throw, Young made a driving layup over Snider and then Snider canned back-to-back buckets to give the Owls their biggest lead of the game to that point at 61-55.
“When we went to that high-low we got Ben some looks in the second half,” Nayadley said. “One thing we’ve been stressing in practice is toughness and that helps you with rebounding a lot. Daaron got tied up once and he pushed a kid, but he’s in there battling. Ben and Andrew just ripped them (rebounds) out of there.”
Just over a minute after Snider’s quick-strike scores, Robinson made three free throws after being fouled by White County’s Kordell Henderson. Young hit a right-wing 3, Ware tipped in a Jackson miss, the Warriors’ Zack Stephenson made a free throw and the Owls’ lead was 66-60.
Over the final 1:52, Ooltewah made 7-of-10 free throws to seal the win.
For the game, Ooltewah was 28-of-37 from the charity stripe, much better than the Owls usually shoot from the line.
“The scouting report on (Ooltewah) is they don’t hit free throws,” Mitchell said. “In their previous game they were 15-of-31 and we weren’t going to give up layups because we wanted to send them to the line. As it turned out, their free-throw shooting was the difference in the game.”
Robinson was 11-of-12 from the line. Snider went 7-for-7.
White County made 12 of its 17 free-throw attempts.
“I’m really glad we played here tonight,” Nayadley said. “They made it hard on us and that’s what we need right now if we’re going to win tough games and move on.”
Ooltewah 22 21 19 25 – 76
White County 20 16 11 18 – 67
Ooltewah (76) – Antonio Jackson 11, Jacqueze Robinson 24, Andrew Ware 9, Ben Snider 21, Daaron Maston 13, Ron King 2.
White County (67) – Cade Crosland 13, Stephenson 3, Davidson 3, Wilkerson 6, Kane Young 12, Henderson 7, Dalton Nash 16, Newport 7, Fresh, Robbins.
3-Point Goals: Ooltewah 6 (Robinson 3, Maston 3); White County 7 (Crosland 2, Wilkerson 2, Young 2, Henderson).
Region 3-AAA Tournament Schedule
McMinn County (20-8) vs. Bradley Central, 6 p.m.
Cookeville (22-10) vs. White County (20-11), 7:30 p.m.
Walker Valley (19-11) vs. Ooltewah (18-9), 6 p.m.
Cleveland (19-11) vs. Bradley Central (17-12, 7:30 p.m.
Girls championship, 7 p.m.
Boys championship, 7 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)