CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Ooltewah basketball coach Jesse Nayadley grew tired of experimenting with a zone defense against Bradley Central on Friday. He watched wearily as the Owls limped to a three-point first quarter, leading to a double-digit halftime deficit.
So he turned to what he knew would work well -- man-to-man.
The Owls limited the Bears to nine points in the second half and were able to claim the District 5-AAA title outright with a 44-30 victory Friday at Jim Smiddy Arena. Ooltewah already had the top seed locked up based on a coin flip over the Bears and Cleveland, but Nayadley chose not to reveal that fact to his team, instead hyping the game as a district championship, winner-take-all affair.
Both teams had key players sit out -- Jacqueze Robinson for Ooltewah and Logan Cox for Bradley.
After watching the Bears control the first half, Ooltewah (17-8, 10-2) dominated the second half. Bradley converted only four field goals and the Owls held a commanding 16-3 edge on the backboards, led by Andrew Ware, who finished with 12 rebounds.
"I told the guys that we had to play defense. That's what matters," Ooltewah point guard Antonio Jackson said. "We'll score on offense; we had to step up our defense.
"We might not be the best team, but we play defense harder than anybody; we lock down on the defensive side."
Jackson had 15 points and eight assists. His first assist came 19 seconds into the game, when he fed Tucker Bass for a 3-pointer, but the Owls didn't score again until nine seconds into the second period on a layup by Ware. Bradley scored 13 points between Ooltewah's first two field goals, passing and cutting effectively through the zone for layups.
The Owls battled back to trail 21-16 at halftime, then started the third quarter with a 12-2 run, as the Bears who couldn't find gaps to score. Bass keyed the spurt, scoring eight of his 11 points during the run.
"We got some good looks in the first half, but in the second half Ooltewah starting overplaying in their man defense," Bradley coach Kent Smith said. "We don't do a good job in backdoor cuts as a team; we've drilled it, but we don't do well. We had some good looks, but there was just a lid on the rim.
"I started dialing up set after set after set trying to get scorers in comfort zones, but we just weren't hitting shots."
Matthew Whitmire, who led the Bears with 11 points, scored the first two baskets of the half. His second, on a post-up, cut the Ooltewah lead to 28-25 with 2:59 left in the third quarter, but the Bears managed only two Daniel Clark field goals the rest of the game.
Ware finished with a double-double, 10 points and 12 rebounds, while Ben Snider pulled down seven rebounds.
"I don't think the zone killed us. It was the fact we were trapping out of it and we weren't supposed to," Nayadley said. "We challenged the guys to match Bradley's toughness in the second half and see what we could do.
"There was nothing fancy: We didn't trap, we didn't go for steals. We just used our quickness and beat them on their cuts. It was just a good defensive game altogether, and I think we're finally turning a corner -- and at a good time."