Ice dictated the events in the recently completed Denver Miller Classic hosted by Kirkwood (Mo.) High School.
Ice from Mother Nature extended the tournament, which ended on Monday. But it was ice running through the veins of Panther guard Alex Orr that helped secure the tournament title for OTHS.
Orr came up with a critical defensive steal and calmly sank six consecutive free throws in the waning seconds of O’Fallon’s championship face-off against Jennings (Mo.) High School, which boasted a 13-2 record and a No. 6 ranking in Missouri Class 4A. Orr’s heroics sealed a 55-51 upset victory for O’Fallon and boosted the Panthers’ seasonal mark to an impressive 12-5. The OTHS stunner was preceded by wins over two more Missouri schools, McCluer North and Ladue, eliciting high praise from first-year head coach Brian Muniz.
“Our kids just refused to buckle,” Muniz said. “We depend on an up-tempo game to compensate for a height disadvantage against most teams. Usually, we play harder than other teams, but Jennings matched us in that area. They wanted it just as bad as we did. Through hard work and perseverance, we were able to make the plays at the end of the game and come out on top.”
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Orr led O’Fallon with 13 points, and Daron Thomas added eight in the victory, but it was the defensive effort that was the key. The Panthers forced Jennings into 22 turnovers and limited the Warriors to 21-for-43 from the field and 0-for-7 from behind the 3-point arc. Jennings, despite the poor shooting, was able to scratch out a 26-23 halftime lead, but behind balanced scoring the Panthers erased the lead by the end of the third stanza, setting up the gutty heroics in the final two minutes of regulation play.
Road to the title
O’Fallon’s tourney trek began with a 61-43 shellacking of McCluer North. After a nip-and-tuck first eight minutes that saw the Panthers eke out a 17-15 advantage, the OTHS offense kicked it into high gear, out-scoring McCluer North by eight in the second quarter. Jalen Hodge and Burke Watts spearheaded the OTHS offensive surge. Hodge ended the game as O’Fallon’s leading scorer with 14. Steven Sharp also was a factor inside, hitting on five of 10 field goals and sinking four of four shots from the charity stripe to finish with 14 points.
The third quarter was played on fairly equal terms, but the Panthers turned up the heat defensively and expanded their lead with a series of conversions off McCluer North’s ball-handling errors in the final stanza to win going away.
OTHS continued to execute well at the start of their semi-final match-up against Ladue. For the first three quarters, the Panthers could do little wrong. But in the fourth quarter, very little went right. Fortunately for the local hoopsters, they survived the storm to escape with a 70-65 victory. Ladue, which entered the contest as the tournament’s top seed, was held to 28 points by the swarming OTHS defense over the first three periods, allowing O’Fallon to build a seemingly secure 53-28 lead. Then, things changed drastically and dramatically at the start of the fourth stanza.
“We were hitting on all cylinders in the first three quarters,” Muniz said. “We were aggressive the entire time. When the fourth quarter began, I think our kids thought the game was over. Ladue didn’t. They hit some shots. Instead of attacking them, like we did during the first three periods, we got attacked and didn’t handle it well.”
The sudden and unexpected reversal of momentum caused O’Fallon’s comfortable lead to evaporate quickly, exacerbated by an uncharacteristic 5-for-17 performance from the charity stripe. Employing wilting defensive pressure, Ladue used their decided height advantage to their benefit. With 6-foot-7-inch Moses Okpala and 6-6 River Rhoads setting traps on the smaller Panthers, turnovers and easy baskets began to shave the OTHS advantage. The result was a 37-point fourth quarter for the Missourians and some hand wringing by Muniz down the stretch.
“Obviously, I am happy that we built a big enough lead to survive,” Muniz said. “But we’re not happy with what happened at the end.”
The Panthers survived the blitz, however, with three OTHS players hitting for double figures, Deion Norfleet lead the attack with 15, aided by solid contributions from Jalen Hodge (13) and Alex Orr (10).
The OTHS squad will return to regular season action this week with another difficult assignment when they host the East St. Louis Flyers on Friday.