LAWTON — By the end of the third quarter, it appeared Ardmore's hopes of making the area tournament were completely dashed.
Piedmont led by 20 after a period in which Ardmore's offense went completely dry. But the Tigers didn't quit, rallying behind a flurry of 3-pointers in the fourth that saw them come up just short.
Ardmore lost 44-40 in the Class 5A regional tournament on Friday, but it wasn't without fireworks and the promise of years to come.
"It just couldn't be a greater ball game than that, unless we won," senior guard Dre Johnson said. "We kept fighting ... til the last minute."
Trailing 34-14 entering the fourth, the Tigers scored the first 12 points of the frame, and that was before sophomore Anthony Willis really got going.
Willis, who finished with a game-high 21 points, caught fire in the fourth with five 3-pointers. The 6-1 guard scored the Tigers' final 12 points — all from long range — with his final 3 tieing the game at 40-all with less than a minute to play.
But Piedmont was able to hang on, hitting four free throws down the stretch as Ardmore failed to capitalize. The Tigers had chances to either tie or go ahead on its last three possessions but couldn't convert.
Ardmore finished the season 8-15, missing out on the state tournament for the first time in more than six seasons.
"I thought we could make it further than this," Johnson said. "In the fourth quarter I thought it was over, but I just starting thinking 'we can do this.'
"Luckily Anthony started hitting some good shots for us. It's just a bad feeling right now."
Considering Ardmore's offensive struggles in the third against Piedmont's zone defense, the Tigers' rally came completely out of nowhere.
Urgency kicked in and Ardmore quickly chipped away at Piedmont's lead. The Tigers reverted back to their first-half defense that held the Wildcats to just 17 points.
It also helped that the shots started falling. Sophomore guard Kevion McGee (nine points) hit the first 3 of the fourth for Ardmore and the points started pouring in.
"You just tell them to keep playing hard and shots will go in," Ardmore coach Mark Wilson said of the 20-point deficit. "Just like they (Piedmont) started to make some shots to get up 20, we started making some shots.
"The 3 that Kevi hit ... it was like it opened up the basket. He hit the first one and then Anthony just went crazy."
Willis hit a corner 3 to cut Piedmont's lead to 38-31 — the first time the Tigers trailed by less than 10 since the beginning of the third. Following a Piedmont basket, Willis scored nine straight, draining three consecutive 3-pointers to bring the Tigers all the way back.
Page 2 of 2 - It was the last basket Ardmore would make. Piedmont's Adrion Williams made 4 of 4 from the line in the fourth quarter, including two in the final seconds to push the Wildcats' lead to four.
Cameron Peters led Piedmont with 13 points and Grant Gipson added 11, including three 3-pointers. If Ardmore managed one or two buckets in the third, the outcome would have been different, but Piedmont outscored Ardmore 17-0 in the offensively inept period, daring the Tigers to shoot while hounding them into nine turnovers.
Ardmore outscored Piedmont 26-10 in the fourth, with Willis outdueling the Wildcats himself with 18 points. After the game, however, Willis only showed the disappointment of a player — a team — unable to advance.
Like the beginning of the season, Ardmore finished it undersized and inexperienced. The Tigers had four sophomores on the floor to start the game, with Willis the most vocal in a close huddle before tip off.
Johnson, one of two seniors for Ardmore, is hoping the performance of the youngsters can carry over into next season.
"I really respect them for trying," Johnson said of the younger players. "I really do appreciate them fighting that hard and not giving up."
Erik K. Horne