When Dylan Tinkler hit a buzzer-beating turnaround jumper to give Latta a 34-32 victory over Konawa at the 2010 Class 2A regional basketball tournament, he wrote a fitting ending to the Tigers’ crazy 2009-2010 season.
The loss ended a rollercoaster 13-12 campaign during which the Konawa boys — who had won just four games a year earlier — lost seven times by two points or in overtime while playing one of 2A’s toughest schedules. As frustrating as last season was for himself and his players, though, coach Gordon Garner saw it as a giant step forward for the program.
“Last year we were very competitive, and some of the years where we won seven or eight games we were competitive,” said Garner, who played on Konawa’s 1980 state championship squad and just began his seventh season as coach of the Tigers and Lady Tigers. “There are a lot of ways to build tradition, and one way is scheduling. In our area we play the Dales and the Lattas and the Byngs, and that’s not conducive to a lot of wins, but we’re starting to win some of those games.
“Our boys program is starting to look like it’s going back to where it was a few years ago,” he added. “Back then, it seemed like we were going to state every year. I was lucky enough to be on four straight state tournament teams, and they went three or four times in the mid and late ‘80s.”
While Konawa boys basketball has struggled in recent years, Garner’s girls program has evolved into one of the most high-profile in the state. The Lady Tigers have gone to three state tournaments in the past six years (twice as the No. 1 seed); the Tigers, meanwhile, have advanced as far as the area tournament only once during that stretch.
Times could to be changing, though. Despite having opened the season with identical 4-0 records heading into Saturday’s championship games at the Southeastern Oklahoma Shootout in McAlester, the Konawa boys and girls squads appear to be facing vastly different futures.
The Lady Tigers (No. 12 in the latest 2A rankings) suffered wholesale graduation losses last spring, and their top two players this season — point guard Nikki Nail and forward Chelsea Gillum — are both seniors. Garner figures to face a major rebuilding job when his current group of upperclassmen graduates.
In contrast, the Konawa boys have just two seniors on their roster, and, although Garner will have a big hole to fill when high-scoring Devin Terry graduates this spring, the Tigers should continue their upward swing next season.
Of more immediate concern to Garner and his players, though, is continuing to have success this season while wading through another tough schedule. Because of their sub-.500 records in recent years, the Tigers have routinely faced brutal postseason scenarios, and Garner said his club needs to get the attention of the voters who rank the top boys squads in Class 2A before the playoffs begin in February.
“I don’t pay much attention to the rankings — I just don’t get caught up in them and I never have,” he admitted. “It’s just pure and simple...we have to win. I don’t think people will take a good look at us if we just play people close — we did that last year. Coaches aren’t going to take us seriously unless we win.
“Maybe the word will get out, but it’s a simple solution — we just need to take care of our end and win some ball games,” Garner said. “If we do that, hopefully we won’t get overlooked.”
And winning is something the Tigers are doing on a regular basis so far this season. Konawa got a measure of revenge for last season’s playoff loss by beating Latta (ranked No. 16 in Class 2A), 43-39, at home Tuesday and stretched its winning streak to four with back-to-back victories over Valliant and previously unbeaten Coalgate (No. 19 in Class 3A) in the first two rounds of the Southeastern Shootout.
“I think we saw in the Latta game that we made a few plays down the stretch where last year we might not have,” Garner noted. “It’s early, but we have made some plays, and our guys are very aware of last season.”
Terry, a move-in from Prague who averaged over 20 points per game as a junior, and point guard Alex Yellowfish — the area’s top freshman in 2009-2010 — were major reasons for The Tigers’ turnaround last season, and Garner’s program got another boost when junior guard Chad Cloud moved to Konawa from Byng over the summer. The addition of Cloud to a guard rotation that was already solid with Terry and Yellowfish gives Garner potentially one of the most dynamic backcourts in all of Class 2A.
“We knew coming into this season that we were going to score a little bit better, and the addition of Chad makes us quicker,” Garner said. “He’s quick and he’s good with the basketball, and his shot is coming around. With Devin and Alex, he gives us three pretty good guards.”
The 6-1 Terry was one of the state’s top 3-point specialists last season, and Garner said he has already proven to be a lot more than just a shooter as a senior.
“We post him up to take advantage of his size — he can play inside or out,” Garner said of Terry, who had a season-high 39 points in a loss to Stratford last season and scored in double figures in each of the Tigers’ first four games. “Last year, Devin was a 3-point shooter, but he’s worked hard and he’s got a good all-around game right now.
“He can shoot the basketball, and he’s doing a lot of the little things we need,” he added. “Maybe the biggest thing he’s doing is proving leadership.”
Yellowfish made an immediate impact as a freshman, averaging almost 12 points per game and dazzling crowds with highlight-reel drives through traffic. Garner said he expects his point guard to make an even bigger splash as a sophomore.
“Alex drives our bus,” Garner said. “He’s coming off an ankle injury and maybe his scoring is down a little bit now, but as he gets into the flow of the season he’s going to be tough.
“When the ball is in his hands, we’re in good shape,” he added. “He gets us in the right sets, and he’s tough to guard. I think people overlook his defense. He plays bigger than he is, and he’s got quick hands.”
Konawa’s other two starters — 6-3 center Cody Stinnett (the team’s other senior) and 5-10 sophomore forward Josh Kirkwood — are new in that role, but Garner said both have performed well so far.
“Cody Stinnett is giving us a lot of valuable minutes in the post,” Garner noted. “He’s worked hard and he’s played well in our first few games.
“Josh is undersized for a forward, but he’s pretty strong,” he added. “He’s also done a good job so far.”
Although the Tigers figure to be outsized by most of the teams they play this season, they have been spectacular at times on defense.
In Tuesday’s victory, Konawa held Latta to just 28 shots (Tinkler and senior sharpshooter Reed Johnson combined for 17), and the Panthers didn’t get off a single shot for a stretch of more than six minutes in the fourth quarter. On Friday, the Tigers shut out another of the area’s top centers — Bradley Stowe — and held Coalgate to 12 points over the final three-plus quarters of a shocking 51-21 blowout in McAlester.
Garner said the string of nail-biters his team played last season and the younger players who have come into his program over the past year or so should combine to make this group of Tigers his most successful since he returned to his alma mater in 2004.
“I think one year of maturity and being in those close games will pay off,” he said. “Our boys have been competitive — we just haven’t been able to get over that hump.
“We just haven’t had enough kids in the classes in years past, but we knew this sophomore group could play a little bit,” Garner added. “The big thing is we’ve got numbers now, and we’ve got quality numbers. Some of the stuff we’ve tried to get across to these kids is starting to pay dividends.”
The one black cloud on the horizon for Garner and his players is the depth in Class 2A this season.
“2A is loaded — it’s as strong as it’s been in many, many years,” Garner said. “Millwood is dominant, and Talihina has been on the brink of winning (a state title) the last couple of years. Stratford is moving up (from Class A), so it’s a loaded year.
“The OSSAA has added some teams to 2A, so there won’t be any more two-team districts — somebody is going to be sent home,” he added. “That puts pressure on you right off the bat. It’s going to be an interesting year. We could have an unbelievable area tournament just with the teams around here.”