Sports Sunday Correspondent
With about a minute gone in the fourth quarter Friday night, and Tahlequah leading Claremore, 60-42, a stream of fans was working its way to the exits of Frank Mobra Field House.
What they missed over the next seven minutes was a most remarkable comeback.
The Zebras, famous locally for such exploits, outscored the Tigers, 24-6, to force overtime. But the air slipped out of the balloon in the extra period, and Tahlequah escaped with a 79-76 Metro Lakes Conference high school basketball victory.
There was no such tension in the girls game. Audra Skimbo led three Lady Zebras in double figures to help CHS to a 64-29 pasting of the Lady Tigers. And it was not as close as the score indicated. Claremore led, 29-5, at halftime.
Claremore, which played four games in five nights last week, will close out its regular season Monday with a doubleheader at Pryor.
The “second season,” starting with the Class 5A regional tournament, begins Thursday in Claremore for the girls, and Friday at Tulsa East Central for the boys.
While the comeback is not part of the team playbook, it is a strategy the Zebras (10-11, 7-5 Metro Lakes) have tried to patent this season, much to the chagrin of coach Lance Bennett.
“I wish we would pick up our intensity earlier in the game,” Bennett said. “We missed some easy shots. We missed some free throws. We only had seven turnovers, but each one was a big one.”
What does a coach tell his team in a timeout when its trailing by 18 points in the fourth quarter?
“I told them we were going to win the game,” Bennett said. “That’s just me. They knew we could win the game. And they know I’m not going to lie to them. I’m not trying to give them false hope. We could have won.”
While the defense was hounding the Tigers into turnovers and hurried shots, the offense was using the whole arsenal to crawl back into the game. Senior Trevor Grubb nailed a pair of three-pointers. Senior Chris Bottoms muscled his way inside for buckets. Senior Brent Wilson brought down a bushel of rebounds.
The 18-point Tahlequah lead was down to five. The Tigers called timeout.
As the Zebras returned to the court, senior Andrew Rounds, the team captain, grabbed his teammates by their jerseys into a quick huddle and implored them to keep fighting. But Rounds, who had seven points in the quarter, would not be on the floor to see the culmination of the comeback, picking up his fifth foul shortly afterward.
The comeback would continue, and senior Greg Sanders picked up where Rounds left off. Sanders deflected passes, made steals and hit a three-pointer. Then, with less than 15 seconds left, he stepped to the foul line and sank the tying free throws.
In overtime, Tahlequah aircraft carrier Matt Qualls (28 points) went over the smaller Zebras for a pair of buckets and Marcus Tyner (23 points) sank seven of eight free throws to finally put the game to rest.
Bottoms finished with 25 points and eight rebounds. Rounds had 13 points and eight boards. Wilson, Sanders and Riley had nine points apiece, Wilson leading the team with nine rebounds.
The score was 2-2 after a minute. Seven minutes later, the Lady Zebras were ahead, 14-3, and as the second quarter wore on, and the lead increased, CHS coach Mark Campbell was able to go to the bench to give the non-starters some extended playing time..
“I thought we were able to use different combinations with the kids that come off the bench with the starters, give them a chance to play with starters as we go into the playoffs,” Campbell said. “That was pretty valuable.”
Skimbo, the big junior, had another productive offensive night. She scored 11 of her 23 points in the third quarter, canning a trey for good measure, as CHS (15-5, 9-3) pushed its lead to 46-20 heading into the final eight minutes.
Senior Hayley KnifeChief made her presence known on both ends of the floor as well as in the middle. KnifeChief had 13 points but was a burr and a blur on the Lady Tiger defense with deflected passes on the defensive end and sharp passes on offensive side that led to several easy baskets.
Senior Erica Johnson had 12 points on four three-pointers.
Kate Atkins scored 11 points to lead Tahlequah.
“All in all, we did a pretty good job,” Campbell said. “We’re still not real consistent. But I think we’re getting there. By Thursday, we’ll be hitting on all cylinders.
“We better be.”
CLAREMORE 64, TAHLEQUAH 29
Tahlequah 3 2 15 9 — 29
Claremore 14 15 17 18 — 64
Tahlequah — Atkins 11, Bowin 8, Girdner 4, Hamilton 4, Hix 2.
Claremore — Skimkbo 23, KnifeChief 13, Johnson 12, Lauren Froese 6, Logan Froese 6, Barnoski 2, Milone 2.
TAHLEQUAH 79, CLAREMORE 76
Tahlequah 19 10 20 17 13 — 79
Claremore 13 12 13 28 10 — 76
Tahlequah — Qualls 28, Tyner 23, Nelson 9, Shankle 8, Espinal 7, Turner 4.
Claremore — Bottoms 25, Rounds 13, Sanders 9, Wilson 9, Riley 9, Grubb 8, James 2.