BETHANY – Elijah Stargell wasn't ready for his final basketball season at Earlsboro to come to a close Thursday night, so the Wildcats' senior put it on his shoulders for a comeback that will not soon be forgotten after trailing 31-25 at the half.
Tied with No. 9 Whitesboro at 46 in overtime of the quarterfinal round of the Class B state tournament in Bethany, Stargell rebounded a Bulldogs shot and put on the blinders for a layup at the buzzer to win 48-46 and advance the top-ranked Wildcats into the semifinal round.
“I had no doubt in my mind I was about to finish,” he said. “It's my last year, I ain't about to lose like that. Ain't going out like that,”
Whitesboro went to the line for three 1-and-1 opportunities in a row and missed all three and Stargell went to the line to make both shots of his 1-and-1 attempts to tie up at 44 with a minute remaining in regulation.
Stargell took a charge on a last second layup by Tucker LeMay and the teams went into overtime. That charge and another to start the extra minutes were big, Earlsboro coach Russell Parsons said. He knew Stargell would get things done when he needed to, even if he did have to set him straight a couple times.
“Those are big plays in any game, especially a game like this,” Parsons said. “He settled for a dribble up three late and looked at the crowd and they said 'take a better shot.' After that I had one chance to settle. After that I told him 'Do not settle. Impose your will, you're the best athlete, possibly the best player in this tournament. Go impose your will.' And I felt like he went back to that and that's where he found most of his success that second half.”
Ethan Adams went to the line one more time for Whitesboro, this time making both shots to go ahead 46-44 with 1:14 to play in overtime and Stargell tied it up at 46 with 1:01 to go.
The Wildcats trailed by as much as 11 in the third quarter but a 13-point second half performance by Stargell and six from Kaveon Sharp earned the Wildcats the chance to close things out in overtime.
Whitesboro's Bobby Rose and Cael Lawson made the first back-to-back baskets of the game to give Whitesboro an 11-8 lead with 3:24 left in the first and the Bulldogs rounded out the quarter with a 9-0 run capped on a wide open trey fromL eMay to lead 20-12 after the first.
Stargell retaliated with a triple of his own to start the second and cut Whitesboro's lead to 5 and Sharp added a pair of buckets to make it a 20-19 game with 5:10 left before the half. Adams drained his first of two 3-pointers in the quarter for Whitesboro and the teams traded blows for a 31-25 Bulldog lead at the break.
Parsons let his guys take the reigns in the third and provided help when needed. He told his team, “You don't need me at this point in the season. As many games as we've played, as much experience as you guys have, you don't have to look over to me for what to do. You know what to do. Go lead yourselves. We've got plenty of leadership on the court.”
Down 38-29, Stargell finished off the third with an and-1 make and a layup to cut into Whitesboro's lead and added a bucket to start the fourth for a two point game. Sharp made his way to the line with 6:41 left to go and iced both shots to tie up at 38 and Stargell landed a basket to retake the lead with 4:56 to go but a pair of treys from Corben Culley pushed the Bulldogs ahead 44-40 with 3:50 left in regulation. Stargell made a bucket with 3:17 to go to set up Whitesboro's misses at the free-throw-line.
Both teams showed immense trust in each other – Earlsboro mainly on the defensive end while Whitesboro's movement on offense was meticulously choreographed.
“They're quite adept at moving the basketball and you can tell they trust each other,” Parsons said. “Those guys know where they're going to be. They get near to make a pass and they trust that when they let the ball go, there's usually the guy coming like they expect.”
Stargell completed the game with 28 points to lead all scorers and Sharp put up 12. Trey Herron had six on two 3-pointers and Garrett Lena chipped in two on separate free throw attempts. The Wildcats made five 3-point attempts – all in the first half – and Whitesboro landed eight.
Culley led Whitesboro with 13 points and Adams finished with 12, including two 3-pointers. They were 4-7 from the line.
Stargell is Earlsboro's leading scorer in school history and inches closer to the 2,000 career mark with potentially two more games to hit that accolade. He'll worry about that once the season is done though. Right now, the only thing on his mind is bringing the hardware home.
“I'm just worried about that ring right now,” he said.
Earlsboro will play Calumet Friday at noon in the semifinals at the State Fairgrounds in Oklahoma City.