E.A. Sports Today

A matter of trust

Leonard’s three-point play in final five seconds lifts Oxford to its first Northeast Regional win in 19 years

Oxford’s Eugene Leonard drives around Pinson Valley’s Christopher Lewis for the Yellow Jackets’ game-winning three-point play. On the cover, Oxford’s bench erupts after Leonard’s layup drops. (Photos by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE – Things didn’t look too promising for the Oxford basketball team with 18 seconds left in its Class 6A Northeast Regional opener against Pinson Valley Friday.

The Yellow Jackets were down a point, had just lost what might have been their last best chance to win on an offensive foul, and the Indians had the ball.

“It doesn’t look pretty,” coach Joel VanMeter agreed.

But even in the darkness he never lost confidence somebody would make a play.

Actually, it was two somebodies. Markise Davis collected a steal on the inbounds pass and then sophomore point guard Eugene Leonard converted a three-point play with 3.2 seconds left to lift the Jackets to a 60-58 win at Pete Mathews Coliseum.

The Yellow Jackets (23-10) now play Parker (26-7) Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

As it was, Friday’s win was their first in the regionals since the 2006 semifinals in Troy. It was their first Northeast Regional win since beating West End in the semifinal in 1998; ironically, the coach the Jackets will oppose Tuesday, Parker’s Reggie McGary, was the West End coach they beat that day.

“How much better of a high school basketball game can you get?” Van Meter said. “Pinson Valley has a lot of fight. They came here to win and it was a battle, but our guys were tough.

“I thought they out-toughed us the first half. I thought our toughness came through the second half and (when) you’ve got good players, they go make plays and that’s what they did.”

The Yellow Jackets won despite 23 turnovers and freshman post Zondrick Garrett, the dominating player in the game, fouling out with 3:43 to play and his team up by seven.

The Jackets were down 58-57 when PV’s Orion Morris missed a pair of free throws that would’ve really put them in a bind. Leonard was controlling the pace on the ensuing possession and got the ball to Jakolbe McClendon for a potential go-ahead basket.

McClendon went hard down the left side, but was too aggressive and was called for an offensive foul with 18.5 seconds left.

“It looks like you’re done,” VanMeter said. “But that’s when it goes back to conditioning and the hours you spent together, just the grind that a guy’s gonna make a play for you. Whether it’s Eugene making the shot, Markise getting a steal or Jakolbe creating a turnover or Z (Zondrick Garrett) getting a block, you just trust each other that you’re going to make that play.

“It’s all faith in each other and that’s what a team is.”

All the Indians had to do was get the ball in bounds after the offensive foul and they could dictate the end game. But Morris got between McClendon and Davis, the ball got loose and Davis came up with it with 13 seconds to go.

“You just had to be tough,” Davis said.

The Jackets set a play for Leonard with two ball screens by Braden Mack and McClendon at the top of the zone and outside threat Simeon Shadrix in as the decoy.

Leonard worked off both screens and drove hard down the left side of the lane, about the same place McClendon got his offensive foul. His layup was good for the lead, touching off an explosion of emotion from the bench, and he converted the and-one to make it 60-58.

Leonard called it “probably one of the biggest plays in my life right now.”

“You live for these type moments,” he said. “I’ve been seeing Michael Jordan do it, Labron (James), all my favorite players do it. I feel like I had the drive to get it done. I felt like I could really get it done when I did that.”

The Indians (21-11) didn’t get much of a shot to win it at the buzzer.

Oxford placed four scorers in double figures. Garrett dominated the game before fouling out with 15 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots. Mack had 11 points and 11 rebounds playing off Garrett’s presence. McClendon had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting and VanMeter called him the Jackets’ “spark in the game.”

Leonard finished with 11. His trip to the foul line to seal it was his only free throw of the game.

“We relish the opportunity to play in this atmosphere again with the opportunity to do what we set out to do,” VanMeter said. “And that’s to win the regional tournament and have a chance to go on to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center and play for a state championship.”

Oxford 60, Pinson Valley 58
OXFORD (23-10) –
Markise Davis 3-11 0-0 7, Jakolbe McClendon 5-6 4-8 14, Eugene Leonard 4-8 1-1 11, Zondrick Garrett 6-11 3-3 15, Braden Mack 2-4 7-10 11, Simeon Shadrix 0-0 0-0 0, Caden Higgins 0-0 0-0 0, Ty Davis 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 21-41 15-22 60.

PINSON VALLEY (21-11) – Orion Morris 6-18 2-5 16, Kewaski Jackson 1-4 0-2 3, Liallen Dailey 3-5 2-2 8, Colby Jones 1-5 2-4 4, Geordon Pollard 8-9 5-7 21, Elijah McKinney 0-0 0-0 0, Keijon Duncan 0-2 0-0 0, Stephan Bridges 0-2 0-0 0, Mari Phillips 0-2 0-0 0, Christopher Lewis 2-4 2-2 6, Camron Scott 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-51 13-22 58.

Oxford 16 15 17 12 — 60
Pinson Valley 15 19 8 16 — 58

3-point goals: Oxford 3-13 (M. Davis 1-7, Leonard 2-5, Garrett 0-1); Pinson Valley 3-10 (Morris 2-5, Jackson 1-3, Duncan 0-1, Phillips 0-1). Rebounds: Oxford 32 (Mack 11, Garrett 8); Pinson Valley 26 (Pollard 8). Fouled out: Garrett, Dailey. Total fouls: Oxford 21, Pinson Valley 21. Officials: Marius Dockery, Shaun Greenhill, Ken Barnett.

Oxford freshman Zondrick Garrett filled the box score with dominating numbers before fouling out in the fourth quarter. (Photo by B.J. Franklin/GungHo Photos)

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