Except for about a five-minute stretch in the middle of the first half of Tuesday's District 5-AAA high school boys' basketball game at Ooltewah, the hosts swarmed and pressured McMinn County from one end of the court to the other. Then during the four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter that decided the outcome, the Owls' pressure was so potent, they only needed it on one end.
Three turnovers in the Cherokees backcourt proved instrumental in helping Ooltewah pull away for a 69-57 win and maintain its hold on first place in the district standings.
By winning on senior night, Ooltewah (20-6, 9-2) prevented McMinn County (17-9, 8-4) from creating a four-way tie for first, with Bradley Central and Cleveland included. The Owls can clinch the regular-season title if they win Thursday at Cleveland, which beat them 71-58 at Ooltewah last Friday.
"That's why you play the game," Ooltewah coach Jesse Nayadley said. "We've played 26 games and it's come down to the last game for the district championship. I can't imagine why you wouldn't be fired up."
It didn't take the Owls long to get energized early Tuesday as they raced to a 15-4 lead. Yet the Cherokees managed to hang around enough to be within 51-49 before the outburst that sealed it.
Wesley Richey's rebound basket started Ooltewah on a 12-2 run he capped with the front end of a one-and-bonus situation with two minutes remaining. In between, Andre Moton made two layups and Mikhail Creech had a dunk -- all off steals within 20 feet of the basket.
"I don't think it was just the fourth quarter," McMinn coach Keith Elliott said. "It was their intensity and pressure the whole game. It kind of got to us toward the end, physically and mentally."
Nayadley saw it similarly.
"You wear them down enough, they get a little tired and get a little lazy with some passes," he said. "We got to a point where we should've benefited from it, and we did."
The Cherokees withstood Ooltewah's quick start and tied the game at 21 on Cedrick Nevins' three-point play 4:44 before halftime. That turned out to be their only free throw, and they did not make a 3-point shot.
"We average three or four. Maybe five is big for us," Elliott said of 3-point goals. "We didn't hit any during that stretch starting with about two and a half minutes left. We took about four of them and none of them fell. They stretched the lead out after those four misses."
Moton led the Owls with 23 points on 10 field goals, including all three of their 3s. Richey added 21 points and Jervon Johnson chipped in with 11.
Nevins totaled 21 points for the Cherokees, whose 35-34 lead early in the second half was the only one they owned besides 2-0. Nathan Simbeck added 12 points.
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.