Tushka basketball coach Chris Zike can pinpoint exactly when things turned around for him and his Tiger team this season.
The Tigers were 13-8 on the season and at a crossroads after suffering seven losses in the final minute, including four by one possession.
“I made the kids hold each other accountable,” recalled Zike. “When we messed up in practice, I wouldn’t get on them. The kids would punish themselves. That might mean doing 10 pushups or running a lap. They did a really good job and held each other accountable and that helped them grow.”
Once the accountability kicked in, the Tigers went on a roll. They won their final 11 games and capped off their memorable season last week by claiming the Class A state championship.
It’s the first basketball state championship since 1948 for the tiny Atoka County town located midway between McAlester and Durant. The school’s last state tournament appearance came in 1955.
“It was crazy,” claimed Zike, who just completed his third season at Tushka. “It really was. There was a lot of excitement around the community, that’s for sure.”
The Tigers are believed to be just the second boys team ever to win an Oklahoma state basketball championship as an unranked team. According to “I Was At The Game“, the 2000 Fort Cobb-Broxton boys also accomplished the feat.
To win the title, Tushka beat five ranked teams in the postseason. At the state tournament in Oklahoma City, the Tigers beat Arapaho 33-30 in the opening round, then knocked off top-ranked Hydro-Eakly in the semifinals, 42-40, and #2 Garber, 48-43, in the title game.
“I really feel those early losses helped us later in the season,” stated Zike. “It helped us be able to close out games.”
“We really pride ourselves on defense,” said Zike. “We always preach to them that you’re probably only going to play good offensively one out of every three games, but you can play good defense every game.”
Along with playing stifling defense, the experienced Tushka squad seemed to make every clutch free throws every time they went to the line.
“Free throws were a big thing in the fourth quarter of all three games in the tournament,” stated Zike. “We shot free throws very well, especially late. I haven’t really gone back and watched to see how many, but I don’t know if we missed maybe two off the top of my head, in the last two minutes of all three games. And one of those was where I told them to miss it on purpose. That was in the semifinal game, when we were up two with 1.3 seconds left.”
In the state tournament, Tushka was led by 6-7 senior Jeffrey Mackey, who put tallied 13 points and 17 rebounds in the title game.
“All year, we knew he was capable of doing it,” said Zike of Mackey. “He just kind of figured it out at the right time at the state tournament. I don’t know if he knows what he did. He was a man amongst boys at the state tournament. It was amazing.”
The Tigers also received key contributions all season long from point guard Tagen Simon, defensive stopper Lex Simon, leading scorer and three-point specialist Cole Simpson, and rebounder Bryson Tuck.
“You know, it was all five of them,” Zike remarked on who was the team leader. “They would have run through a brick wall for each other.”