In Oakdale coach Brandon Long’s mind, Tommy Kelly wasn’t a lesser version of himself.
Upon returning from a fractured left kneecap last February, Kelly wore a bulky brace for precautionary reasons. He didn’t show anywhere near the kind of aggression he displayed on Thursday at Tuscarora, where he scored 19 points and dished off the assist on Jackson Meade’s game-winning layup with three seconds remaining in overtime to give the Bears a thrilling 68-67 victory over the Titans.
With two-time News-Post Player of the Year Collin Schlee running the show for the Bears offensively last season, Kelly was just biding his time for an opportunity to perform the way he did on Thursday.
“Last year was a little bit more deferring because of Collin,” Long said. “Now we don’t have that ... one guy, and I think he’s trying to, not be the guy but be the generator for us to kind of get us going. That was evident tonight.”
With the shot clock winding down, Tuscarora’s James Quinn hit an NBA-range 3-pointer from the right wing over the outstretched hand of Meade with 45 seconds remaining to break a 64-64 tie and put the Titans seemingly in control. But Kelly hit a pullup jumper from the free-throw line to cut the lead to one, and two missed free throws by Joshua Draughon with 13.1 seconds left presented the Bears (3-0) with a chance to win the game.
On the second missed free throw, Ethan Reifer grabbed the last of his eight rebounds and sprinted upcourt before finding Kelly near the top of the key. As the 5-foot-11 senior drove the lane, the Titans’ Savion Maultsby stepped out from underneath the rim to challenge him.
“I just dumped it down [to Meade], saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Kelly said. “It happened so fast, I can’t really describe it. And I knew he would make it.”
Meade’s layup ended a game that featured eight lead changes, with neither team leading by more than five points.
“Two outstanding high school basketball teams in a great high school environment,” Tuscarora coach Darryl Whiten said. “The fans got their money’s worth.”
Kelly finished with five assists, but he also looked for his shot quite often, attacking the rim while also using his dribble to create space for pullup jumpers. He estimates that he grew three inches — while adding some strength — over the past year, making for a more confident player entering December.
“Tommy runs plays, he gets everybody set up,” Meade said. “He’s a point guard — a true point guard.”
Kelly credits his teammates for spreading the floor in such a way that gives him opportunities to drive the lane and either finish or create shots for his teammates.
“We do a great job of spacing, the wings [spreading] out, and I think it really opens the floor for me to either kick or look for my shot or dump down [into the paint],” Kelly said.
Like Kelly, starting backcourt mate Jack McGaha also took an aggressive approach by looking for mid-range pullup jumpers. McGaha and Reifer each finished with nine points. But Kelly emphasized the team’s depth, citing the contributions of Kyler Dorner and Garrison Linton off the bench. Dorner hit two 3s, and Linton made one.
Dorner, Linton and McGaha used their length to try and trap Titans guards at halfcourt.
“[We want] to rush [opponents] — try to get them to turn the ball over,” Meade said.
Like Oakdale, Tuscarora (2-1) also faced the task of replacing major contributors with both Trumaine Strickland and Anthony Davis, first-team and second-team All-County selections, respectively, having graduated.
Like Kelly and McGaha, Draughon looked to score much more often than he did in the past, hitting three 3-pointers on his way to 16 points and six assists.
“We consider him a prolific scorer,” Whiten said. “We consider him to be one of the best players in the area.”
Quinn also finished with 16 points while Xavier Chase (14 rebounds) and Aziah Thomas (five assists) each scored 11. Maultsby pulled down 11 rebounds for the Titans, who erased a five-point fourth-quarter deficit to force overtime.
Chase hit two free throws with 35.2 seconds left to cap the scoring in regulation, but the Titans went 9-for-19 from the free-throw line.
Tuscarora won the JV game 60-39, getting 22 points from Robert Hallman, 12 from Ryan Desanto and 11 from Kobe Neal. Will Rodriguez paced Oakdale with 12 points.