WALES — The signs came early, one after another, in wins and in losses.
They were there in how the Oak Hill boys basketball team responded to a season-opening loss to Winthrop. And how the Raiders rallied quickly for a win against Lisbon. And then how they did the same against an undefeated team in Hall-Dale.
They were signs to coach Tom Smith that he could have a good team this season, and that after years spent as an also-ran, the Raiders were ready to become contenders this time around.
“When we beat Hall-Dale the first time here,” Smith said, “that was probably when I knew we had something special.”
The premonition has proven correct. After a string of missed playoffs and a 6-13 season that ended in the preliminary round, Oak Hill has thrust itself into status as a Class B challenger, sporting a 10-8 record that was good enough for a fourth seed in the South region and a direct trip to the Portland Expo for the quarterfinals.
“We came into this season wanting to get past the prelim game, that was one of the goals we set for ourselves,” Smith said. “And that’s been the motto we’ve had all season long. Let’s get to the tournament, let’s not play a prelim game. That’s been the goal, and the guys have really bought into it.”
To a man, however, the Oak Hill players say the turnaround has been internal. There hasn’t been a hot-shooting freshman added to the mix, or a shot-challenging transfer, or a tenacious rebounder who’s finally getting the chance to start after time on the bench.
The Raiders are winning because they’re tightly knit. They know each other, so they trust each other.
“Our chemistry has gotten us to the next level,” senior forward Marcus Bailey said. “We’ve been playing with each other since third or fourth grade, back in travel league or rec leagues, with each other or against each other. It doesn’t matter.”
“We’re all one brain on the court,” junior guard Cohen Donnell said. “We all know what we’re going to do. We know where to get people the ball, where the ball should be, in their hands.”
They know each other’s styles, which allows them to understand their own roles. Donnell is a dangerous shot who can rack up points from the outside. Guard Austin Noble is the team’s best distributor. Forward Darryn Bailey is a hard-nosed rebounder who’s good in transition. And all 12 players know that earning playing time starts with defense.
“We all have our roles,” Donnell said. “We could be shooting bad one night, but we get six steals or six rebounds or whatever. We work together as a team, pick each other up if someone is not shooting well.”
“I feel comfortable with the 12 kids I have, and I’ve gone 12 deep,” Smith said. “In years past, I didn’t have the understanding that I felt comfortable going 10 to 12 deep. This year I have (it).”
The leaders on the floor, however, have been Bailey, a 6-foot-4 center who’s a double-double option each night at 16.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and senior guard Evan Boston, who’s second on the team with 12.1 points per game and who has a knack for finishing games in the fourth quarter, particularly when teams focus on limiting Bailey in the paint.
“Marcus has been with a basketball in his hands since I can remember him as a little kid,” Smith said. “(And) Evan can take over a game at any time. He’s got to know when his shot is there and not force it at times, but I’ve watched him in the fourth quarter just dominate.”
The mix is a good one, and it’s been tested. The first time came in the first game, when Oak Hill limped out of a matchup with eventual Class C South top seed Winthrop with a 79-48 loss.
“We really weren’t playing like us,” Marcus Bailey said. “We came in there with zero confidence, we weren’t linking up, we weren’t on the same page. Nobody was.”
Smith saw a team that didn’t stop fighting in the second half even with the game out of hand, however, and that pride turned first into a 59-56 win over Lisbon in which Oak Hill erased a five-point deficit, and then weeks later into the 59-53 win over Hall-Dale in which the Raiders trailed in the fourth quarter again before making the plays late.
“After we beat some of the better teams, it was just a big confidence-booster,” Boston said. “Ever since that’s happened, to me at least, I feel like that’s when we really noticed ‘Hey, maybe we can win some playoff games and go (deep) into the tournament.”
It hasn’t been easy since — Oak Hill was the first team to lose to Mt. Abram, 54-49, on Jan. 21 — but when the Raiders have had setbacks, they’ve answered them. One game after the Mt. Abram loss, Oak Hill rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter to beat Hall-Dale again, this time on the road.
“Beating Hall-Dale twice, that’s pretty impressive,” Boston said. “That doesn’t really happen too often with Oak Hill.”
Neither does winning at this time of season, but the Raiders have been comfortable and relaxed in the tightest moments. Bailey and Boston have been clutch scorers, and when they’ve drawn the focus of the defense, they’ve had a reliable cast to back them up.
“These guys get behind and they have no worries about not coming back,” Smith said. “We’ve been down just about every game, nothing’s come easy for us. But they know how to come back. They can come back.”
Now they get a chance to test that knack in the tournament, one step further — and perhaps more — than where they were a year ago.
“I’ve been to the tournament when I was coaching at Poland, and the atmosphere, it’s a wonderful thing,” Smith said. “And these kids are going to get to experience that for the first time.”
Drew Bonifant — 621-5638