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By GOOSE LINDSAY
The Oliver Springs Bobcats had been knocking on the door of greatness since joining Class A five years ago. Monday night at Hampton, the Bobcats knocked the door down with a 49-43 victory that earns the Bobcats their first TSSAA State Tournament appearance since 1999.
Staring with the 2005-06 season, the Bobcats had won the District 4-A regular season or tournament title in each of the past four seasons, but they couldn't duplicate that success after district play.
This season was different as a senior-laden Bobcat squad won their fifth straight district title and then rolled through the Region 2-A Tournament and carried that momentum into a hostile environment at Hampton.
"I can't find the words," Oliver Springs head coach Tony Ingram said when asked what he was feeling after Monday's victory. "It's just a great feeling. I'm so happy for these guys. They've worked hard for this since July."
That hard work has been both mental and physical. Early in the season injuries and illness slowed the Bobcats. As tournament time approached, Oliver Springs had to overcome TSSAA probation that meant the Bobcats couldn't play any postseason games at Terry L. Hacker Gymnasium.
Part of that punishment included playing Monday' sectional contest at Hampton instead of Oliver Springs and Ingram knew that home court advantage is huge this time of year.
"We talked about it being physical," Ingram said. "We knew the refs weren't going to bail us out on the road. Our number one key was to play physical and expect contact."
Monday's contest was definitely a physical battle as the officials let the teams decide the game on the floor and not the charity stripe. Only five combined fouls were called in first half and it wasn't until late in the second half that both teams reached the bonus.
That physical play, however, was just fine with the Bobcats, especially 6'7" 300-pound center Tyler Harper who blocked six shots on the night.
"That's how I like it; it was my type of game," Harper said. "I'm proud of this team and what we did tonight. We wanted to play Hampton in football, but Tellico Plains beat us and kept us from coming up here. This was a little bit of revenge."
While Monday's game was physical, it was also a game of adjustments for the Bobcats, the first of which came less than four minutes into the game.
Hampton's Nathanael Hughes came out smoking as he buried two three-pointers and scored 10 straight points in giving the Bulldogs a 10-5 lead with 4:30 left in the opening period. All of this came against Oliver Springs defensive stopper Rue Eskridge, but Ingram, Eskridge and senior guard Wesley Rather knew a change had to be made.
"We all knew we had to make a change," Ingram said. "The good thing is our guys already knew it. I was getting ready to make the change and Rue and Wesley were already switching defenders."
"We just thought I could body him up a little better," Rather said. "I wanted to take it to him and take away his strong hand. I think I got into his head a little bit."
The move worked as Hughes scored just four points the rest of the night and the rest of the Bulldogs had trouble picking up the slack.
"It wasn't just me switching to No. 5 (Hughes)," Rather added. "It was great team defense and Rue did a great job on 13 (Dylan Ward)."
After putting the clamps on Hughes, Oliver Springs closed to within two points at 14-12 after one period of play. Eskridge and Rather each scored five points in the opening period for the Bobcats.
The second period was defense at its best as the two teams combined for just 10 points with the score being tied 18-18 at halftime.
Oliver Springs' next big adjustment came at halftime. The Bobcats settled for a lot of three-point shots in the first half, but the second half would see the Bobcats getting the ball to the middle of the court and then hitting the weak side.
"We talked about the middle of the floor being open," Ingram said. "We knew when we got it to the middle of the floor that we had to attack, especially the back side."
The change in philosophy worked. After falling behind 22-20 early in the third period, the Bobcats went on a 12-0 run to take 32-22 lead with 1:52 left in the third quarter.
Eskridge and Harper sparked the run with four points each before Rather capped the run with a three-point bomb.
After taking the lead Oliver Springs' defense would have to turn away one more run. After falling behind by 10, the Bulldogs answered with an 11-3 run of their own to close within 35-33 with 5:48 left in the contest.
But before the Bulldogs could complete the comeback, Rather delivered the knockout blow. Rather scored nine straight points and he assisted on a Garrett Miller basket with 2:33 left to play that capped an 11-2 run to give the Bobcats a 46-35 lead with 2:33 left to play.
Hampton would bury a pair of three-pointers in the final 1:10 of play, but they would get no closer than five points down the stretch as Oliver Springs celebrated their first state tourney berth since 1999.
Rather led Oliver Springs on the night with 24 points, five rebounds and five assists. Eskridge added 10 points and six rebounds while Harper (6 points, 5 rebounds, 6 blocks), Miller (3 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) and Lucas Tarver (4 points, 6 rebounds) also played well.
"Everybody that played tonight contributed in this win," Ingram said. "We just played well tonight."
Hughes led Hampton with 14 points and seven rebounds while Ward added 13 points and seven rebounds.
Next up for the Bobcats is the TSSAA Class A State Tournament that begins next Wednesday in Murfreesboro. The Bobcats will not find out their opponent until Saturday.
"I told the guys they have 48 hours to celebrate then Wednesday it's back to work," Ingram said. "We're not done yet; this isn't our end goal. We've still got work to do."
Oliver Springs (49) Rather 24, Tarver 4, Harper 6, Eskridge 10, Miller 3, McBee 2.