E.A. Sports Today

Well worth the wait

Oakwood Academy returns to the regional stage a year after standing up for its religious beliefs and beats Faith Christian, the team it was supposed to play in that game last year

Faith Christian’s Thomas Curlee drives against Oakwood Academy during their Northeast Regional Class 1A semifinal Monday in Pete Mathews Coliseum. He scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in his final high school game. (Photo by Greg Warren)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

JACKSONVILLE – Melvin Allen, Jayden Nesbitt and the rest of the Oakwood Academy basketball team waited a whole year for this game Monday night. What was another two-hour bus ride down 431.

It was well worth the wait.

The Mustangs, embraced by statewide basketball fans all the way to the Governors Mansion last year when they self-forfeited last year’s Northeast Regional semifinal because it fell on their Seventh-Day Adventist Sabbath and the AHSAA steadfastly refused to accommodate it, made it back to Jacksonville State Monday night and pummeled Faith Christian 72-46 for its first AHSAA regional win in school history.

Now, the Mustangs (24-8) will play Skyline Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. for their first trip to the Final Four.

“We’re just glad to be back here,” Allen said. “Of course, all of you know the story from last year and we want to thank our coaches, our school, our church, our fans, the entire state for the support they gave us last year. The ruling from the (AHSAA) not only will make accommodations for our student athletes, but all student athletes throughout the state regarding their religious faith, so we’re just glad for that ruling and glad to be back here in the championship actually playing.

“Of course, we were disappointed we couldn’t play last year, but our faith was that all things work together for good and that’s something I kept before these student athletes all year long. Now the policy has been changed, you have an opportunity to play, now you have this awesome responsibility to work hard every day to get back and they’ve done that.”

Allen, the former JSU player who returned to the floor upon which he played to coach the game, called it “divine providence” that the opponent was Faith Christian, the same team they were supposed to play last year.

The teams were scheduled to play after sundown Saturday last year in the semifinals, but the tenets of the Mustangs’ religion precludes them from engaging in physical activities at that time. The AHSAA could have simply altered that day’s schedule to accommodate the school, but wouldn’t budge. Even Gov. Kay Ivey came to the school’s defense.

There was a difference in the teams this year, however. Minus one graduated senior, this was ostensibly the same Oakwood team that would have played in the game last year. Faith, however, had only two players – Thomas Curlee and Yashua Arevalo – who played meaningful varsity minutes last year.

That, regardless of the emotional element, is what Faith coach Cory Hughes said gave them the edge. Given the way the Mustangs played, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if the opponent were Faith, the Golden State Warriors or a group of five sportswriters in the interview room. They were that active.

“I always try to shoot my guys straight,” Hughes said. “I think we’re a really good basketball team, even though we’re young. Now, we couldn’t have played a worse third quarter, but I told them in the locker room I think if we played a perfect game tonight Oakwood still wins.

“Wow. Size wise, athleticism, they have nine seniors. They came out with a game plan to play bully ball and they absolutely executed that … If that’s the fire that got them lit tonight, then wow … This year we ran into the monster and the monster ate us.”

Hughes said his team watched numerous tapes of the Mustangs’ games this season and he had “never seen them play the way they played tonight.”

The Mustangs shot 61 percent from the floor (73 percent in the second half), and that with going just 3-for-11 from 3-point range. They scored more points in the paint (48) than Faith scored in the game (46). And they outrebounded the Lions by 16.

“It’s nothing but the grace of God that we were able to come here, to come back,” senior  guard Eleazar Williams said. “Like coach said, divine intervention is important, but it’s nothing without the work.

“We just wanted to work to prove to ourselves that we actually deserved to be here and I feel like that’s why our energy came because we wanted to prove to ourselves because everything is you against you. It was important that we prove to ourselves that this wasn’t just a fluke game, wasn’t something we weren’t supposed to be here. We were meant to be here, we were meant to win the state championship.”

Oakwood post Jayden Nesbitt was really inspired. He nodded approvingly when the question was asked if it had been worth the wait.

The 6-foot-6 senior was a force on both ends of the floor and the Faith players who went against him praised him for the way he used his body. He had a double-double in the first half and finished with 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the floor, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked three shots. Camden Edwards (12) and Jonathan Walden (10) also scored in double figures for the Mustangs.

The Mustangs led 21-14 early in the second quarter after Nesbitt scored a basket and slammed home the rebound of his missed and-one. The Lions tied it at 26 on a drive by Arevalo and had a chance to take their first lead since 9-8, but Arevalo missed the and-one. Oakwood scored the last seven points of the half and never led by less than that the rest of the game.

“Honestly, I couldn’t get any sleep last night,” Nesbitt said. “I was thinking about this game all night, on the bus ride, all throughout my day and I was ready to play.

“Because of last year I really wanted to play in this gym. I was just excited and so I just used all that energy up on the floor and I’m tired right now.”

 Tysean Allen 2-3 1-3 5, Camden Edmonds 6-11 0-0 12, Monathan Walden 3-5 4-5 10, Jayden Nesbitt 9-13 2-6 20, Eleazar Williams 4-7 0-0 9, Jourdan Reid 2-2 0-0 4, David Still 2-3 0-0 5, Micah Andrews 1-1 2-2 5, Dylon Pognon 0-1 0-0 0, Will Lewis 1-2 0-0 2, Cayden Pyfrom 0-0 0-0 0, Andrew Tsoi-a-fatt 0-1 0-2 0. Totals 30-49 9-18 72.
FAITH CHRISTIAN (20-11) – Thomas Curlee 10-23 0-4 21, Connor Richerzhagen 3-4 0-0 8, Tyler Bell 1-5 0-0 3, Yashua Arevalo 2-9 2-6 7, Eli Robinson 0-0 0-0 0, Will Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Parker Robertson 0-0 0-0 0, Carson Harris 3-10 0-0 7. Totals 19-51 2-10 46.
Oakwood   17  16  20  19 –  72
Faith           11  15    9   11 –  46
3-point goals: Oakwood 3-11 (Edmonds 0-5, Walden 0-1, Williams 1-2, Still 1-1, Andrews 1-1, Lewis 0-1); Faith 6-23 (Richerzhagen 2-3, Bell 1-5, Arevalo 1-4, Curlee 1-8, Harris 1-3). Rebounds: Oakwood 39 (Nesbitt 13); Faith 23 (Curlee 10). Fouled out: Arevalo, Robinson. Total fouls: Oakwood 12, Faith 19. Officials: Walker, George, Green.

Cover photo: Oakwood Academy’s Jayden Nesbitt challenges a shot by Faith Christian’s Tyler Bell during their Northeast Regional Class 1A semifinal Monday in Pete Mathews Coliseum. (Photo by Greg Warren)

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