The host Knights trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half, but stormed back to earn a 57-52 win in the quarterfinals of the Class 8A, District 5 Tournament.
OCOEE Jamel Pierre wasn't ready for his high-school basketball career to end just yet. The senior forward for Ocoee was one of just a handful of few seniors even suiting up for the final of four quarterfinals of the Class 8A, District 5 Tournament Monday night.
The Knights' opponent, No. 3 seed Windermere, has no seniors — there are none on the campus of the brand-new school in Horizon West.
And as for Ocoee, the tournament's No. 6 seed, the Knights carry just a few seniors and the playing rotation heavily favors the team's talented underclassmen.
So, when Pierre came to the free-throw line with the game tied 50-50 and 33.9 seconds remaining — and again moments later with 24.9 seconds remaining — he felt understood the pressure in a way that was unique.
Perhaps that is why Pierre made all four free throws, helping Ocoee — which trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half — to the 57-52 victory.
"I had to put everything I had into this game, to make sure our season continued to go on," Pierre said. "I was thinking that I had to just take my time and follow through — I had to make them."
The Knights (8-17) had been run off their home floor by the Wolverines exactly a month earlier — a 58-34 loss Jan. 12 — and when they went down early, history looked to be repeating itself. Ocoee was able to trim down the 15-point deficit it faced early in the second quarter to just six points at halftime, though, and the Knights continued to improve from there.
"The message has been the same since I've been here — if we play hard, and we play together, good things are going to happen," head coach John "Sarge" Siers said. "We responded to that. I wasn't going to panic and take a bunch of timeouts. We had to figure it out."
In particular, Ocoee slowed down Windermere forward Dakota Rivers after the standout junior had come sprinting out of the gate — Rivers scored 15 points and had four blocks in the first half, alone. Rivers would score just six points the rest of the way, as the Knights were able to assert control of the post down the stretch.
"We had to win the six-feet in the paint — and we did that in the second half," Siers said.
Pierre finished with 12 points for Ocoee, with junior Derrick Rucker scoring a team-high 15 points.
For Windermere, which finishes its inaugural season with 16-10 record, Rivers led all scorers with 21 points. Junior sharpshooter Josh Colon weighed in with 17 points, including three 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that nearly enabled the Wolverines to fend off the Knights' late charge.
Ocoee will now face No. 2 seed East Ridge, which defeated No. 7 Lake Howell in its respective quarterfinal game, at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday in the district semifinals.
A playoff berth will be on the line when the Knights face the Knights, and Siers will be facing a longtime friend and mentor — East Ridge head coach Mike Clutter ran a camp Siers worked in Virginia more than three decades ago.
"He's been a mentor of mine for 33 years," Siers said of Clutter.