GOODWELL, Okla. (March 1, 2014) – As Oklahoma Christian was mired in an eight-game losing streak, coach Dan Hays kept saying that he saw his young Eagles progressing with each day and each game.
Now that progress is showing itself with wins. Willie Harper scored 26 points, John Moon scored a key late basket and Nick Tate added two clutch free throws with seven seconds left, lifting OC to an 83-79 win over Oklahoma Panhandle State on Saturday afternoon at Oscar Williams Field House.
OC (10-16, 6-12 Heartland Conference) completed a season sweep of Panhandle State (2-26, 2-16) and moved up two spots in the league standings into a tie for ninth with Newman, a team the Eagles also swept this season, and St. Edward’s (Texas).
More importantly, the Eagles won their third straight game, matching their longest winning streak of the season as they begin preparations to host the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region tournament, which likely will start March 13.
“What’s happened is, we’re playing better, but were really playing better when we get to a point in the game where we get challenged,” Hays said. “Earlier in the season, we couldn’t make a big shot and couldn’t stop the other team’s big shot. Now we keep grinding and we find a way.
“We’ve learned some toughness and some grit and just the ability to finish. Our younger kids are really growing up and contributing. All of those guys are making contributions now, where earlier we couldn’t really count on them. Now they are all making positive contributions. We’re just becoming a better team through perseverance. It’s not easy to do when you’re on losing streaks, but they’ve worked hard in practice. We’ve put ourselves in position to make a run at it.”
Like the first OC-Panhandle State meeting, Saturday’s game came down to the final minutes. The Aggies took a 78-77 lead with 1:28 left on a pair of free throws by Jeremy Newton, who scored 20 points. Twenty seconds later, Moon returned the lead to OC with a layup. He finished with 18 points.
Newton missed a 3-point shot at the other end with 48 seconds left and OC held the ball until Kendre Talley missed a layup attempt with 12 seconds left. But Moon rebounded Talley’s miss and scored to put OC up 81-78 with :09 left.
Krys Randolph, who led Panhandle State with 29 points, went 1-of-2 from the free-throw line for the Aggies after being fouled by Harper with eight seconds left. Tate was fouled with :07 left and made two free throws, giving OC an 83-79 cushion and Randolph missed another 3-point try in the final moments.
Tate had 14 points for OC while Talley had 10 assists to go with seven points and six rebounds. Harper finished 6-of-12 from 3-point range while posting the second-highest point total of his career.
OC led by as many as seven points in the first half before settling for a 36-32 halftime advantage. Kyshan Sands put the Aggies ahead 50-47 with 13:44 left, but Harper knotted the game with a 3-pointer and followed that with a steal and dunk.
Randolph’s 3-pointer with 12:25 left gave Panhandle State a 56-52 lead, but the Eagles answered again, scoring the next 11 points, a run that included two 3-pointers by Harper and another by Tate. Panhandle State rallied to take the lead twice in the final three minutes before OC’s late-game heroics.
“I kind of sounded like a broken record, but only those that watched them could tell that they were making strides,” Hays said of his players. “We finally made the stride that we were making the big basket at the right time or making the big stop at the right time.”
Randolph went 8-of-13 from 3-point range, the most 3-pointers made in a game this season by a Heartland Conference player.
Arkansas-Fort Smith won the regular-season Heartland title with a 14-4 record, one game better than Texas A&M International and two games ahead of St. Mary’s (Texas) and Lubbock Christian (Texas), which tied for third.