They handed the trophy to Tommy Kelly because, after a game like this, there was no other player to logically hand it to.
“It’s crazy,” Kelly, a senior captain for the Oakdale boys basketball team, said after the Bears claimed their third consecutive regional championship Thursday night with a 74-60 victory over visiting Middletown in the Class 2A West Region II final.
“All of us middle schoolers watched those guys like Clay Conner and Zach Thomas do it, and you dream about it. Three times is crazy.”
This time, Kelly was in the starring role as he scored a career-high 29 points to lift Oakdale (19-6) into Saturday’s state quarterfinals. The Bears are the No. 3 seed in 2A and will likely host 2A East Region I champion Elkton (14-8) at 6 p.m. Saturday, according to coach Brandon Long.
“It’s great for football because you’ve got a week to prepare,” Long said of the reseeded state quarterfinals, which is a new round of playoffs this school year for all MPSSAA team sports. “But I’ve got less than 24 hours now.”
Still, Oakdale was sure not going to let the significance of another regional championship slip by unnoticed as the team decided to cut down the nets.
There was some internal debate about whether it was the right thing to do because, as Kelly said, “There is still more work to do.”
Until this season, a regional championship in boys basketball meant a trip to the University of Maryland and the state semifinals. The champions were just two wins from a state championship.
But now the regional titles aren’t as significant with this state-quarterfinal layer. Teams are still three wins away from a state title. And some around the Oakdale problem wondered if it was smart to make such a splashy showing of a slightly diminished accomplishment, even after the decision to cut down the nets was made.
“In the heat of the moment, yeah,” Kelly said in support of the decision to cut down the nets.
Kelly has been Oakdale’s leading scorer all season, averaging close to 14 points per game. But, through all his years of rec league and high school basketball, he said he had never gotten so close to scoring 30 points in a game.
Were it not for a pair of missed free throws, he would have gotten there.
“I said that to [assistant coach Ryan Burkey],” Kelly said. “When he told me how [many points] I had, the two free throws just came right to my mind.”
Middletown (19-6) was well aware of the threat Kelly presented as an offensive player. They shadowed him with a high-level defensive player in sophomore Jalen Huskey and contested many of his shots.
“He just made even better shots against really tough defense,” Knights coach John Keimig said.
Kelly finished with five 3-pointers. He scored seven straight points early in the third quarter to help give Oakdale the separation it needed.
“I knew he was capable of it,” Keimig said. “Man, he is a special guard. I have loved watching him play over the last couple of years.”
Middletown had chopped what was a 10-point lead for the Bears to one at halftime after senior Reese Poffenbarger made a half-court shot to beat the buzzer.
The teams split a pair of regular season meetings, and, in their victory, the Knights had hurt Oakdale with their transition offense.
So, Oakdale made a concerted effort to slow the pace of the game a bit and force Middletown into a half-court offense.
“It’s ironic for us because we are usually, ‘Go, go, go!’” Long said. “It was actually against our grain to [slow down].”
Kelly finished with five assists to go along with all of his points. Sophomore forward Alex Hawkins added 15 points and eight rebounds, while senior forward Ethan Reifer added 12 points and nine rebounds for Oakdale.
Middletown, meanwhile, was led by senior forward Brian Walker, who finished with 28 points. Poffenbarger had 10, and Huskey and senior forward Mason Doody each added six points.
“Didn’t know what we were going to have this year,” Keimig said. “Had some guys come back that hadn’t been around. Like we were saying, they brought an exciting brand of basketball to Middletown this year...Again, to come together and have the fall that some of those guys had and to bring that spirit and energy to the winter [season], it was just special. You don’t have years like this all of the time.”