February 17, 2014 8:23:19 PM
WEST POINT -- For Oak Hill Academy, it was simply a matter of time for the boys' basketball program.
"We had so many young players when the season started," Oak Hill senior point guard Curt Huffman said. "We have progressed with each other and come a long way this season. Right now, we are playing with a lot of confidence."
Saturday night, Oak Hill dropped a 64-55 decision to Leake Academy in the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Class AA North State Tournament. It was Oak Hill's first-ever appearance in the north state championship.
Still, the finish was good enough to qualify Oak Hill for the Class AA State Tournament. Play in that event begins Wednesday when Oak Hill faces Brookhaven Academy at 5:15 p.m. at Winona Christian School. The Oak Hill girls also face Brookhaven in that tournament in a 6:30 p.m. start Wednesday.
"We are playing like a mature basketball team right now," Oak Hill coach Brian Middleton said. "Once we figured out a rotation and what we were good at, we started playing some really good basketball. When it time to make a push, we made a push."
Oak Hill (22-11 overall) turned heads with its strong play down the stretch including a road win at Class AA, District 2 rival Canton Academy and a home win over district rival Leake Academy, the state's top-ranked Class AA school, according to the Clarion-Ledger. After defeating Leake Academy in the final regular season game of the year, Oak Hill has since placed second to Leake in both the district tournament and the north state tournament.
"The Canton win was really huge," Oak Hill senor Stephen Ross said. "We started out 8-5 and we were floundering. We were a young team and that was really the problem. Since Curt and I are the only seniors on the team it was really our job to lead. So we really tried to push early in the season. Once the younger guy really started learning their roles and learned how to play together, this team really took off."
Middleton saw potential in the squad during off-season workouts. He felt like it was all a matter of time before the pieces fell into place and the team played basketball on a different level.
"It took us a while to get going, probably more time than you would like," Middleton said. "The biggest challenge was finding our identity. We had to find the different things that each player could do to help this team get to its full potential. We have come a long way since December. The Canton win was early in January. That is where we turned the corner. Once you start beating some of the really elite teams, you start playing with a lot of confidence. Once we had the roles established and then the confidence kicked in, we started playing some really good basketball."
Like Ross, Huffman felt his playing the leadership role was vital for the squad, especially since he is also the point guard.
"We changed the lineup a little bit and got some more players involved," Huffman said. "Each game, our plan is to get out and run. We do well in transition. The biggest challenge is on the defensive end. Defense is how you win championships, so we really have taken more time to work on the defensive end."
Middleton has also seen the team evolve as different players step up each night.
In a double-overtime win over No. 5 Riverfield to reach the north state championship, sophomore Chance Wilson scored 19 points, including 17 in the second half, and freshman Ken Dill had 14 points.
"Each night, it is somebody new which is why we are successful," Middleton said. "When another team puts together a plan, then we might have somebody else step up and make shots. Everybody plays hard and with effort. Now, we have different players stepping to the fore-front to be the leader each night. We really feel battle-tested now and we feel like we can match up with anybody on any given night."
While the team's success may have surprised some, it has simply followed the schedule that Huffman envisioned.
"The seniors have been with Coach Middleton now for six seasons," Huffman said. "The goal each year was to get a little better and to go further. Our goal this year was to play in the north state championship and we did that. Our next goal was to win a game in the state tournament. We have a chance to do that Wednesday. Beating Leake and beating Riverfield, well those were all steps in the process. We are excited about moving on to the next tournament and seeing if we can keep going.
"Winning 20-plus games is a pretty big deal around here for the boys' team."
Huffman will be joined in the starting lineup by juniors Riley Pierce and Drake Riley, as well as sophomores Kaleb Darnell and Wilson. Sophomore Drew Riley has been starting but will be a reserve in this week's event thanks to ankle injury suffered in the win over Riverfield.
With such an injury situation as a backdrop, the Raiders simply go back to their next man up philosophy.
"This is a special team," Ross said. "I feel like we are really hitting our stride now. We are playing our best basketball at the best time possible."
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Scott is sports copy editor and reporter