WALES — The Oak Hill High School unified basketball team hadn’t lost a game all season, but the Raiders were hardly brimming with confidence as they prepared for their first playoff game with a bigger, taller Westbrook squad.
“Every one of them was very nervous before the game,” co-coach Peter Dennis said. “And when they saw the size of this other team, that added to the nerves.”
Rather than shrink from the challenge, Oak Hill seemed fueled by it. The top-seeded Raiders took the lead early in the first half and never relinquished it, earning a 44-33 victory over the ninth-seeded Blue Blazes that puts them in the South regional semifinals.
“Once the game got in the flow, they seemed to take care of themselves,” Dennis said. “They conquered something today.”
Josh Leavitt led Oak Hill (7-0) with 17 points, while Lee Mower scored 16. Mark Preston led Westbrook (7-1) with 16 points.
“This was definitely one of our toughest games during the season,” said Kierra Rolston, one of Oak Hill’s four partners. “I think having this be one of our toughest games really kind of turned on a switch, and we realized how much we had to bump up our intensity.”
“They knew it’s win or go home,” Dennis said, “and when they saw their opponent and the way they were as far as being competitive, they knew they were going to have to step it up.”
The win was the latest chapter of Oak Hill’s turnaround. The Raiders are off to the semis only two years after failing to win a game in their debut season.
“A couple of years back we were at the other end of the spectrum, where we were 0-8,” co-coach Ron Caswell said. “This season we’re undefeated. That’s a testament to the team. These kids have grown up with the sport over the last three years.”
Oak Hill made its charge early, going on a 10-0 run to take a 10-4 lead thanks to six points from Mower. The senior disrupted the passing lanes all afternoon, recording eight steals and scoring 12 of his points in the first half — while subjecting himself to numerous collisions and hard falls to the floor — as the Raiders took a 24-20 lead at halftime.
“He’s very quick and he plays his heart out,” Dennis said. “I wish he could finish more. There’d be a lot less worries.”
Westbrook tried to rally in the second half, getting within four points at 27-23, but Oak Hill answered again. This time it was Leavitt doing the damage, scoring nine points as Oak Hill went on a 13-4 run that all but sealed the game. Another senior, Leavitt had 11 points in the second half.
“In the second half we definitely picked it up. We finished strong, and that’s a great way to go,” senior partner Tim Riendeau said. “Josh is really good inside all the time. (He’s a) great rebounder, he can really put it up inside.”
The two high scorers had help. Devon Fournier joined Leavitt in gathering rebounds down low and scored eight points, and Marcel Trepanier added three points. Kerrigan Baither was Westbrook’s next highest scorer with three points.
“We get contributions every game from everybody,” Riendeau said. “It’s a really well-rounded attack from the team.”
A team that found a way to keep what’s been a dream season going.
“(It’s) working the fundamental skills,” Caswell said. “If you got a breakaway, take it. Make sure your man’s near you. Make sure you box your man out. It’s just fundamental skills that have risen them this far.”