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Oak Ridge captures Woodland tourney title
MARBLE HILL, Mo. -- Call it the revenge of the stepping stone.
Call it the year of the bird.
Call it what you may.
But please, call the Oak Ridge Blue Jays the champions of the Woodland Invitational boys basketball tournament.
Yes, it has a strange sound, but Oak Ridge lived up to its rare anointment as the tournament's top seed with a 67-55 victory over Meadow Heights in Friday's championship game.
A perennial member of the tournament, which was commemorating its 40th year, Oak Ridge had a history of receiving low seeds and first-round poundings by higher seeds.
"Never in the school history have we been the top seed," said Oak Ridge senior Garret Light, who scored a game-high 24 points.
Light is a four-year starter who has been on the ground floor of the Blue Jays' turnaround.
"My freshman year we started off with a three-win season," Light said. "And we've already got three wins this season. The team has totally turned around since my freshman year."
As with much of Oak Ridge's history in the tournament, the Blue Jays lost in the first round of the tournament in Light's three previous seasons. As recently as two years ago, Oak Ridge was shellacked 77-28 in the first round by eventual-champion Saxony Lutheran.
While the Blue Jays lost their first-round game in 2008, they did follow that with two wins and finished fifth. It was part of a 14-11 season, the first under current coach Adam Stoneking.
The Blue Jays returned four starters from that team, and all four finished in double figures in Friday's championship game. Junior Brett Thomas finished with 15 points before fouling out late in the game, while senior Logan Mangels had 13 and junior Caleb Elam added 11.
"Our players work a lot harder in practice and a lot harder in the offseason than they used to," Light said of the reasons for the improvement.
Stoneking said the Blue Jays' current state has been in the works.
"All the credit goes to them," Stoneking said. "They work their butts off every day. They wanted this really bad. They wanted it so bad. I'm so proud of the way they came out here and just fought the whole game. They never gave up."
Free throws is an area where the Blue Jays excelled in Friday's title game.
Meadow Heights (3-1) scored three more field goals than Oak Ridge (3-0), but the Blue Jays held a whopping 28-4 scoring advantage at the line. Oak Ridge trailed 26-25 at halftime, and had just nine field goals in the second half, but it hit on 24 of 29 free-throw attempts after intermission.
After committing 22 fouls in victories over Scott City and Leopold earlier in the tournament, Meadow Heights committed 25 against Oak Ridge. The Panthers were able to post a one-point comeback victory against Leopold in the semifinals, primarily due to the Wildcats shooting less than 50 percent on their 30 free-throw attempts.
That foul-prone tendency did not work against Oak Ridge.
"We've been working real hard on free throws in practice," Thomas said. "Between every drill we shoot 10 free throws. And we know, we take it to the basket so much, we have to make free throws as a team or we're not going to be successful."
Stoneking said his team is shooting free throws much better than last year. The Blue Jays shot 82 percent on their 34 attempts Friday.
"That's what won us the ballgame," Stoneking said. "And we knew it would. We had seen how many free throws Meadow Heights opponents had shot the last couple of games. We knew we'd get those opportunities. We knew they'd come sooner or later."
Meadow Heights, which shot just seven free throws in the game, committed 18 of its 25 fouls in the second half as two starters fouled out. And the fouls came steadily throughout the half, helping Oak Ridge to take the lead, then pull away.
"The second half I think our legs were tired and we didn't move them," Meadow Heights coach Tom Brown said. "We reached way too much. I think that was our weakness. We've got to work on that. We're young. We've got a lot of young players and we're going to get better. They've just got to work on that defensive end."
With the game tied at 41-41, Meadow Heights took its final lead when Nick Webb hit a 3-pointer with 1 minute, 30 seconds left in the third quarter. Oak Ridge answered with a game-deciding 13-point run that consisted of one 3-pointer and 10 free throws. A pair of Light free throws capped the run with 5:23 left in the game, giving Oak Ridge a 54-44 lead.
The Panthers' Adam Walker, who led Meadow Heights with 15 points, ended the run with two free throws with 5:19 left. But Thomas and Light combined for the game's next eight points as Oak Ridge opened a 16-point lead with 3:11 left.
Meadow Heights closed to within single figures at 64-55 with a minute left, but Oak Ridge closed out the game with three free throws down the stretch.
Dustin Hubler and Webb each added 11 points for Meadow Heights.
It marked the third straight year Meadow Heights lost in the championship game. The Panthers have made it to the title game in five of the past eight years, but have yet to hoist the trophy.
"We've got here five times, but we just haven't got it," Brown said. "But we're going to get it. The kids are positive. They were disappointed we didn't get it. We want it bad. We're going to get there -- a little more work."
MEADOW HEIGHTS (55) -- Adam Walker 15, Dustin Hubler 11, Daylan Davis 6, Josh Keller 1, Calen Buerck 9, Nick Webb 11. FG 21, FT 4-7, F 25. (3-pointers: Walker 5, Hubler 1. Fouled out: Walker, Webb)
OAK RIDGE (67) -- Caleb Elam 11, Lucas Rohde 1, Garret Light 24, Brett Thomas 15, Kyle Rohde 2, Logan Mangels 13. FG 18, FT 28-34, F 12. (3-pointers: Elam 2. Fouled out: Thomas)