HARRIMAN — The sounds of celebration reverberated through the nearly-empty gymnasium at Roane State Community College here Thursday evening.
The whooping and hollering came from Oneida’s locker room, deep within RSCC Gymnasium. It was nearly a half-hour after the Indians’ 61-58 region championship win over Harriman, and a bus waited to take the team to a postgame meal at Cracker Barrel and then back to Oneida.
But the Indians weren’t done celebrating. Oneida coach Jacob King — who had finally made it to the locker room to be doused with water by his team after conducting his obligatory postgame interviews and giving his wife, Hannah, a kiss — had been celebrating since the game ended. He celebrated at the final horn, he celebrated with every person in orange he came into contact with on his way off the court, and he was celebrating when he entered the press box above the court for a radio interview with WBNT’s Tim Smith.
And why not? His team had just accomplished a program-defining moment by winning the Region 2-A championship. And they did it quicker than just about anybody expected.
Senior point guard Chance Botts — one of just three seniors on a team that seems primed for a prolonged run of success — had just been named the region’s most valuable player. Three years ago, when Botts and his fellow seniors Luke Carson and Trenton Clark were freshmen, they won just two games. As sophomores, they won just eight. As juniors, they were much improved but still had a losing record. On Thursday, they found themselves as one of just 16 teams left standing in Tennessee Class A basketball, with an opportunity to play themselves into a spot in Murfreesboro, site of the state tournament. From 8-21 to 23-9 in two years, the Indians have been the most impressive success story in Region 2-A.
“We’re just so proud of these young men,” a jubilant King said. “I know a lot of people are going to give me a lot of credit. Don’t give me no credit. Those kids had to buy in to what me and Coach (Torrey) Slaven were trying to do. You give them the credit.”
In King’s office back at OHS Gymnasium, a basketball sits on a shelf. It’s the game ball from his own playing days, back in the late ‘90s, when he was a 1,000-point-scorer at Oneida. He has made no secret of his determination to take Oneida basketball back to those days. In the second year of his second stint as a head coach, his team is one win away from the state tournament. As a coach, it’s King’s first experience as a region champion. His team wasn’t able to get there during his first stint, and hadn’t since. In fact, Oneida’s last region championship came in 2002, when King was just finishing college.
Before Thursday’s game, King sat down with his team in the locker room to talk about opportunity.
“You have an opportunity to do something only three teams in school history have done, and that’s win a region championship,” King told his team. “And you’ve got an opportunity to have the fourth substate game in school history on your home floor.”
To his seniors, King said, “This is your last opportunity. You’ll never have this opportunity again.”
To his underclassmen, he added, “Yes, we have a lot coming back but this isn’t guaranteed. This could be your last opportunity.”
Then he got serious: “I could take one step and literally drop dead.” For that reason, he told his players, “If you don’t know Jesus Christ, you need to.” Then, he talked about how the Indians were going to attack Harriman.
Winning Thursday’s game might have seemed like a pipe dream. Oneida had faced the Blue Devils three times this season, and had lost them all. In the most recent showdown, the District 3-A championship game on February 20, Harriman’s Jaylen McCullum scored 17 points in the first quarter and the game was never really in doubt, as the Indians gave up 91 points.
But in Thursday’s game, the Indians hung their hat on defense, beginning the game with a focus and aggression that they never lost.
King credited his team with starting the process towards the region title almost immediately after last season ended.
“We took off two and a half months after last season,” he said. “Then we came back and started playing pickup ball and started hitting the weight room.”
And now? Here they are. One program-defining win is under their belt. But an even bigger goal awaits — and it’s one that no one outside the Oneida locker room would have thought possible prior to the start of the season.
“I’m begging you and I’m pleading you,” King said of Oneida fans, “fill the house on Monday (Oneida will host Cosby at 7 p.m.). We have an opportunity to get to the state tournament. That’s hard to believe. But with my kids, don’t you tell me that we don’t have a chance.”