Osceola's goin' to The 'Ship.
Check that ... it's going BACK to The 'Ship.
Senior Isaiah Palermo scored 15 of his game-high 19 points after intermission and his fellow Kowboys made big play after big play in the second half, as the Kowboys advanced to the Class 9A Final Four with a 47-39 victory over Oak Ridge in the Region 9A-2 championship Friday at a loud, raucous, filled-to-capacity Osceola gym.
Osceola (24-6), winners of 14 in a row and 21 of its last 22, will face Region 4 champions South Miami on Friday at 8 p.m. at the RP Funding Center in the second of two 9A state semifinals. Evans and Wellington meet in the other semifinal.
The win also avenged a 71-51 loss to the Pioneers back on Dec. 1, just the third game of Osceola's season. It was also the third consecutive year the two met in the Regional Finals, with the winner of the previous two games going on to win the Class 9A State Championship.
The defensive struggle was not an easy win for the Kowboys.
Missing several layups and committing six turnovers, the Kowboys trailed by seven on several occasions in the first half and were down by five at intermission, 22-17. C.J. Walker played a big role in the first half for Oak Ridge, scoring five points but also recording four blocks and grabbing seven rebounds.
“Not sure whether we were just tight or what, but we missed a lot of layups and short shots in the first half,” Osceola Coach Nate Alexander said. “They (Oak Ridge) are a tall, athletic team and they can be intimidating underneath but we kept shooting ourselves in the foot in the first half.”
Palermo and fellow seniors Josh Marte and Diwun Black would make sure that it was not going to be the last game of the season for Osceola and the last of their careers, however.
Palermo would score eight points and Marte would break a full court press and go coast-to-coast for layups as Osceola out-scored the Pioneers 12-6 in the quarter to take a 29-28 lead heading into the final stanza.
With the score tied 33-33 with 2:52 remaining, Black would hit a three pointer from the corner to give Osceola the lead for good, 36-33. Black, who scored just nine points in the game, had 13 rebounds and took three charges in the second half.
“What Diwun has meant to this team is immeasurable,” Alexander said. “He does a lot of the dirty work for he has a nice outside shot. He made three 3-pointers (against Martin County) in the quarterfinals and gave us two last week in the semis. But it’s also the little things you don’t really see in the box score that has made him so valuable. He takes charges, alters shots and comes up with loose balls. He’s a real team leader in practices too. He’s been a big reason why we were able to turn it around after the slow start we had in December.”
Marte also played a key role. In addition to his nine points, his ball handling broke the Oak Ridge press on numerous occasions and he also scored four points in the final period.
He said the locker room was united at halftime despite trailing.
"We knew it would be a game of runs, and we might get down at one point, we just knew we'd have to fight back. And we all fought," he said. "We all just said we'd stick together."
Alexander said the Kowboys' senior leadership -- and a special home-court advantage didn't hurt either -- gave his team a leg up before the game even tipped off.
“This game is really a tribute to Isaiah, Josh, Jeremiah (Palermo) and our other seniors that have been with this team the last three years,” he said. “They have been responsible for a lot of wins at Osceola.”
Those three, along with forward Armani Thomas, has led Osceola to two final fours, a state championship and a 76-15 record over the last three seasons.
After hitting just four of their first 12 foul shots, the Kowboys came alive at the line down the stretch – hitting six in a row and seven of their last eight to seal the victory.
“Once we took a two possession lead, it was apparent they were going to foul us down the stretch,” Alexander said. “Fortunately we started hitting our free throws.”
Niven Glover led all Oak Ridge scorers with 18 points. Walker, an Oregon signee, got into foul trouble early in the third quarter and did not score in the second half.