With less than a minute remaining and the Yellow Jackets (16-5) clinging on to a one-point lead, Lawler drained two free throws to extend the lead and another after a technical foul was called on Clay-Chalkville coach Daniel Foy.
“Almost every morning we shoot free throws,” the senior said. “During practice, we’ll take breaks and if you’re not getting water then you’re shooting free throws. So we shoot free throws a lot.”
The late-game free throws by Lawler, Ulric Jones and Jamal Lee became necessary after Oxford saw its 12-point second quarter lead dissipate midway through the third quarter mostly by the play of Hasan Abdullah, who finished with a game-high 22 points, and Marcus Baldwin, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half.
“This year we’ve pressed a lot and they’re a very hard team to press,” Yellow Jackets coach Joel Van Meter said. “They play at least four guards and sometimes play five guards at a time and (Hasan Abdullah) is a tremendous player. They did a very good job of beating our press.”
As the two teams went back and forth with Oxford leading 44-41 going into the fourth, the intensity of the game peaked in the final eight minutes.
After losing the lead with 6:13 left for the first time since midway through the third, Yellow Jacket Keith Wilson hit a huge three to regain the lead. With the Cougars (14-4) scoring on their ensuing possession, Wilson, who finished the night with 15 points, hit another three to take the lead again.
“That’s called a guy who has evolved in front of our eyes,” Van Meter said. “What’s better to me than him making the shot is him having the toughness to step up and shoot it. If you don’t make those shots then the game becomes a little bit tougher. He was confident and the on the second one he raised up from about 24 or 25 feet. He had the confidence to shoot that shoot and the toughness to make it.”
Clay-Chalkville, however, soon took the pep out of the crowd, scoring five consecutive points, with a three by Baldwin giving it the lead with 4:12 remaining, before the Yellow Jackets took back over a minute later.
“I told our guys, and I’ve told them this forever, but we’ve been preaching on it the last week, there are going to be nights when things don’t go well and it’s a grind,” Van Meter said. “And they have to find a way to win the game. I thought that’s what we did tonight.”
With less than a minute left and Oxford holding on to a tight 61-60 lead, the Yellow Jackets began stepping to the line. However, the end of the fourth had just as many dramatics as the beginning and middle.
Despite Lawler making the foul shots to extend the lead to 64-60, Jones was unable to make either immediately following. After Lawler made one more free throw, Abdullah made a three, cutting the lead down to 65-63.
But with 1.5 seconds remaining following the three, there was only enough time for Lawler to be fouled and put an explanation point on the victory at the line.
Jones finished the night 14 points as Lee added 15. Lawler led the team with 19 points.
“It was a tremendous high school basketball game,” Van Meter said. “Here’s what’s a little upsetting and it’s playoff basketball and that’s what it’s about, but one of those teams tonight, along with Gadsden City is done after the first night of playoffs. In my humble opinion, I think all three teams—Oxford, Clay-Chalkville and Gadsden City—are capable of being final four teams.”
With Oxford’s trip to Gadsden City on Friday unofficially deciding who will host the area tournament, Lawler said Tuesday night’s win gives the team a little momentum. A win would all but seal area to the Yellow Jackets home court. A loss, however, could create a three-way tie if Clay-Chalkville defeats Gadsden City in their last meeting.
“I don’t know how that works,” Van Meter said about the tiebreaker. “We’re just focused on getting better.”
Brandon Miller covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575 or follow him on Twitter @bmiller_star.