ORANGE PARK – If Florida Power and Light could find a way to store the energy that was built up at tip-off in the Raiderdome for the Oakleaf versus Orange Park High basketball clash on Friday, they could have powered all of Clay County for the evening. Oakleaf guard Kenny Thomas’ game-ending dunk with five seconds left in the game was the final lightning bolt of a second half comeback for the folklore book as the Knights took a 49-44 non-district win amidst the frenzied atmostphere.
“I told my guys, it’s only seven, then it’s only six, we can keep fighting, we can keep grinding, our defense can wake up and our competitive play will not let us go down without swinging,” said Oakleaf High coach Jason Price, as he watched his Knights rise like the Phoenix to finish off a scintillating fourth quarter for the win as playoffs loom in two weeks.
With the Raider Band up in the corner belting out the ESPN theme, the Knight’s Road Crew brought it and stacked the north end bleachers near capacity. Not to be outdone, the Raider side was standing room only! The teams didn’t let anyone down for excitement all game.
A pre-game ceremony to celebrate 1,000 career points for Raider guard John Abate was the final stab at any kind of adrenaline push and, with it, Abate opened the first quarter with 11 points getting the Raiders up 27-19 by halftime.
“We were dead” said Price, who had beaten the Raiders by 20 in December. “In the locker room at the half, they were sitting on the floor, they were just completely done. Last night (Thursday), we put everything on the line against Buchholz, then to come back tonight and play against a really terrific team just wore them out.” But the Knights didn’t take on their third game in the week just to get blown out, and slowly and methodically reeled in the Raiders as they committed several mistakes in the third quarter.
After Abate was recognized, Orange Park had the mojo and was hitting driving the lane, from outside, and just about anywhere they wanted. After the wild first quarter, the pace slowed to an 8-8 second quarter tie, but, with the eight points, the Raiders built over the Knights in the first, it looked like nothing could stop this steamroller.
“We just gave it away,”said an emotionally drained Orange Park Head Coach Derek Kurnitsky, at 12-7 overall, who ended an eight game win streak. “Bad shot selection, bad turnovers, we just gave it away. We gift wrapped it and gave them a Christmas present. If we don’t learn from that, we’ll get beat in the playoffs.”
After halftime, it seemed like two different teams on the court.
“They came out in the third quarter and immediately they started to play the way we’re capable of playing” said Price. “But it was a slow grind.”
Oakleaf smelled blood in the water and outscored the Raiders by five points in the third.
“We just kept chipping away,” said Price. “It was good that it wasn’t a 10 or15 point lead like it could have been. We managed it enough early so that we could come back.”
That little bit of gas on the fire was all the Knights needed. Instead of Orange Park going back to what worked, Kurnitsky was beside himself as he barked out plays and watched his team make the wrong choice on shots.
“We tried playing hero ball in the fourth quarter,” said Kurnitsky.
The Knights were quick to come down with the rebounds, fast-break to their end and waste no time draining another basket. By the end of the third, Oakleaf was only down by three.
In the fourth, it took Oakleaf under five minutes to tie the game at 40. With a three-pointer, the game was locked at 40.
As the game began going back and forth, Orange Park could not hit anything from outside, and the inside lanes were smothered by the Knights. Meanwhile, the Knights were getting the boards, and turning them into valuable points. At 2:07, Oakleaf went ahead on a Quintez Johnson 1 and 1 free throw, 41-40, then 42-40. Orange Park tied it at 42, only to have Oakleaf go back 44-42 and see John Abate get fouled out with a minute left to play. The charge that got Abate his final personal foul, allowed Oakleaf to put yet another point on the board, 45-42. With 43.6 left, Orange Park’s Dialo Bryant worked an inside layup 45-44, for what would end up being the final Raider basket. Orange Park went to intentional fouling to get the ball back, which worked, except the Raiders couldn’t drain the shots. On the return, again intentional foul. Oakleaf hit the first one, missed the second. 46-44, 30.2 seconds left. Orange Park again intentionally fouled. Corey Humbles missed the first, drained the second to put his team up 47-44. Only needing a 3-pointer to tie, the Raiders were not folding. That was until Oakleaf’s Kenny Thomas stole the ball, went coast to coast and slammed dunked the final dagger that slayed the Raiders. With only five seconds on the clock, the Raiders tried a desperation 3-pointer that missed and sent to crowd into a frenzy as the buzzer sounded on one of the best Friday night comebacks all season.
“I just love our toughness” said Price. “They weren’t just going to go out softly. If it was going to be taken from us, it was going to be taken. Just not tonight. This bodes well for the tough games we’re going to face in the districts. You know it’s going to be grinding.”
Orange Park, twice the district 4-6A champions, travels to Matanzas Jan. 29-Feb. 2 for the St. Johns River Athletic Conference tournament before two more Clay County clashes; Feb. 6 at Clay and Feb. 8 against Fleming Island, to end the regular season.