MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Powerful Blackman looked down on Ooltewah.
Enjoying a height advantage at every position and a distinct edge in talent, top-ranked and undefeated Blackman rolled past Ooltewah, 84-58, Monday night in Class AAA boys sub-state action and earned a second straight trip – albeit, 14 minutes and 6.7 miles across town – to the TSSAA state tournament.
“They’re undefeated for a reason,” Owls coach Jesse Nayadley said of the Blaze, 30-0 after finishing runner-up to Memphis East in the 2012 state tournament.
“They’re pretty good and we knew that coming in. At first we stayed with them a little bit. You can’t give them an inch and we gave them way too much – too many easy put-backs, offensive rebounds and second shots. You can’t do that.”
Blackman's starting lineup stood tall -- 6-feet, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3, 6-4. Ooltewah? The Owls starters are 5-9, 5-8, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1.
The Blaze, 56-4, in the past two seasons, will be a tough test for any other team reaching the state tournament that begins on March 13 at Middle Tennessee State University’s Murphy Center. TSSAA will hold the tournament draw on March 9 at 10 a.m. Central Time.
Blackman players and coaches took turns cutting pieces of the net down for souvenirs.
Blaze coach Barry Wortman had his piece of string hanging from his right ear while watching his players take turns climbing a ladder to get to the net.
“First of all,” he said, “that’s an awfully good Ooltewah team, and as good as we’ve seen playing transition offense. But this means a lot to us. We put a poster on the locker room door when we started working last spring – Memphis East 57, Blackman 56 – to make our guys remember that score from last year with an 11-point lead in the quarter. That’s been our goal to get back state and make some noise.”
Ooltewah, which finished runner-up to Bradley Central in the Region 3-AAA tournament that forced the road trip to Blackman, ends the season at 19-11. The Owls earned a berth in the 2012 state tourney, but lost to Memphis Central, 67-54, in the quarterfinals.
“I’m trying not to think about this being my last game,” said Ooltewah’s senior guard Antonio Jackson, who scored 10 points.
With University of Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin watching from the stands for a second straight game and third time this season, Darius Thompson, a 6-foot-4-inch senior guard powered the Blaze with a game-high 24 points, 16 coming in the second half. He also had 11 assists and five steals.
The supeerbly skilled Thompson, who de-committed to Vanderbilt and reopened his recruiting, said Wortman told him and his teammates at halftime to stop settling for jump shots and attack the basket.
He did, and they did. And the Owls were almost helpless to keep the Blaze from blazing out to a 67-46 lead after three quarters.
“Yeah,” the silky smooth Thompson said, “coach told me to attack more. I got more aggressive and took advantage of our height. We all did.”
Thompson was 4-of-11 from the field in the first half, but buckled the Owls’ defense with hard drives to the basket that were so fluid they looked effortless. He made two quick layups to start the third quarter, pushing the Blaze’s lead to 48-34.
After Ooltewah cut the lead to 55-46 on Daaron Maston’s bucket, Blackman’s Josh Maher made back-to-back layups – both with assists from Thompson – and Thompson drove the lane for a dunk and Blackman had a 61-44 advantage with 2:33 left in the quarter.
“When they’re up 15 or 20, it’s prime time for them,” Nayadley said. “They’re having fun and everything’s going for them. You’re in the sub-state but you’re playing up here. That’s why you try and win that region final, just so you don’t hit the road.”
With Blackman up 72-52 after another Thompson layup and he followed that with a dunk, Jauan Jennings got a steal and easy transition layup. Thompson got a steal near mid-court, streak to the other end and slammed down a power jam that shook the house.
“We picked it up in the second half,” said Thompson, who scored 23 points in the Region 4-AAA title game against Siegel with Alabama coach Anthony Grant and the Vols’ Martin, plus a Florida State assistant, in attendance.
For most of the game, Ooltewah’s 5-9 Jackson guarded the slender Thompson, who weighs 175 pounds.
It was a tough assignment.
“I played AAU ball for five years and school – high school and middle school – ball six years now,” Jackson said, “and he (Thompson) is probably in the top three that I’ve played against. He knew how to use his height advantage. When he went to the hole I had a hard time trying to get up there to block the ball like I did against Bradley and Walker Valley.”
Ooltewah’s Ben Snider, who scored a team-high 16 points but only two after suffering a left ankle injury with 2:27 left in the third quarter, had a different take on Thompson.
“He was good but not what people made out to be,” the Owls’ junior guard said. “He didn’t show me anything that set him apart from anybody else we’ve played.”
Snider, however, showed a lot of post-game respect for the Blackman team.
“They’re the best team we’ve seen this year,” he said.
Ooltewah got off to a nice start, building an 11-4 first-quarter lead, but three minutes later Maher’s layup off an assist by that do-it-all guy Thompson, tied the game at 14-14.
The Blaze led 18-16 at the first break.
Snider’s 3 from the right corner pulled the Owls within 27-22 midway through the second quarter. The Blaze, who beat a tough Siegel four times this season – that’s the same Siegel that routed Bradley Central, 59-38, on Monday, went on a 13-5 run and the margin grew to 40-24.
Trailing 50-36 in the third, Jackson drained a 3, Jacqueze Robinson missed a 3-pointer but was fouled and dropped in three free throws, Snider drove the baseline for a layup and Maston hit a bucket to slice the Blaze lead to 55-46.
At that point, Blackman launched an all-out assault on the lane. Ooltewah’s defense was unable to withstand the blitz.
“We played our hearts out,” Jackson said. “Nobody gave up. We kept rebounding, kept shooting and kept hustling. We just came up short.”
That was the theme all game long – short.
Jennings scored 18 points for Blackman and Maher added 10.
Jacqueze Robinson had 13 points for the Owls and Maston finished with 11.
The Owls hit seven 3s, two each by Jackson, Robinson and Snider.
They wanted – no, they needed – more.
“Our goal tonight was to hit 12 to 15,” Nayadley said, “and we’re capable of doing that. In the first half (the Owls hit six 3s before intermission), take away their second chances, we’re maybe tied at halftime. We knew we had to shoot 3s because we weren’t going to get a lot of points inside.
“After halftime, it just ballooned on us.”
Ooltewah 16 18 14 10 – 58
Blackman 18 26 23 17 – 84
Ooltewah (58) – Antonio Jackson 10, Jacqueze Robinson 13, Ware 6, Ben Snider 16, Daaron Maston 11, King 2, Bass, Presley, Hasanbegovic.
Blackman (84) – Cousin 8, McMiller 6, Hart 6, Dowdy 8, Jauan Jennings 18, Darius Thompson 24, Coleman 4, Josh Maher 10, Rogan, Pierce, Henry.
3-Point Goals: Ooltewah 7 (Jackson 2, Robinson 2, Snider 2, Maston 1); Blackman 4 (Dowdy 2, Thompson, Cousin).
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)