TULSA — Mikayla Parks charged at Kamiyah Lyons and was wrapped in her arms before the ball, which Lyons threw into the air as the Class 6A state title game ended, could reach the ground.
The freshman Parks brought the senior Lyons to the Mabee Center floor, and the rest of the Norman High girls, who believed a state championship was possible from the start of its season, followed in a dog pile.
The Tigers are state champions again after beating rival Norman North 44-31 Saturday.
"I'm feeling beyond words,” Lyons said. “I'm so happy right now. I can't even explain this feeling. It just makes me want to cry. I'm so happy right now.”
An emotional scene was expected after Saturday’s game. But NHS felt like no one expected it to be the last team standing in the state this year — and the Tigers were far from shy about the chip on their shoulder.
Coach Michael Neal’s players wore shirts with “NHS Tigers vs. all y’all” printed on the front during pregame warmups of each of their state tournament games this weekend.
“Our girls talked about this opportunity since Day 1,” Neal said. “I told them it's going to be in their hands whenever the time comes, so we're all excited. All we tried to do was put them in a position to help them be successful and then the rest is up to them.”
The time came for NHS.
First, it just needed to shake off some nerves.
“Warmups, I was very nervous,” sophomore Kelbie Washington said, “but once the ball went up in the air, I was perfectly fine.”
Settling into a Crosstown Clash with unprecedented stakes was still a challenge NHS had to overcome.
“I think for everybody; parents, coaches, players,” Neal said of nerves going into Saturday. “They didn't settle down until probably like midway through the first, maybe second quarter, but whenever we got our legs up underneath us and calmed down, we were focused."
NHS and North traded shots for most of the first half, albeit not at an efficient clip. North shot 26.3 percent from the floor in the first half, while NHS shot 22.2 percent.
It wasn’t until the third quarter NHS found a semblance of rhythm on offense and separated itself.
The Tigers outscored the Timberwolves 27-14 in the second half. And in a contest where scoring runs mostly came at a premium, NHS managed to close the game on a 10-0 run and let its seniors share the floor a final time.
“It means everything,” senior Turner Mattingly said. “We’ve been here four years and it’s awesome to have everyone, all the freshmen, sophomores, juniors, all fighting and knowing how much it means to us and means to them. They just had all that fight, it’s just amazing.”
NHS’ celebration relocated from its center-court dog pile to the Tigers’ student section to the hallways leading to their locker room.
It was a euphoric scene, which included long-time NHS super fan Stephen Jones receiving a line of hugs from players and a state championship medal for his unwavering support.
Washington admits there were times this season the Tigers doubted themselves.
NHS went from a 7-5 record at the beginning of the year to winning nine consecutive games to fighting for its season after a loss to Putnam City West in regional play.
“There’s up and downs in the season,” Washington said, “but we kept it together and we got it.”
The Tigers' 83-65 loss to P.C. West forced them to play out of the losers bracket in the area tournament and face a higher-seeded team in the state quarterfinals.
But rather than succumb to the pressure of winning five-straight playoff games to earn a state title, the Tigers gained energy from the loss, which was closer than the score indicated.
“That was really the turning point that we could win this, that’s what we thought,” said Mattingly, who scored eight points. “… That [loss] showed what we can do.”
It ultimately made NHS better, said sophomore Kendra Gillipsie, who had a team-high 16 points and 15 rebounds Saturday.
“I just feel like big-time players make big-time plays, you show when the lights are on,” Gillispie said. “And that’s pretty much what everybody did this whole season, not just today.”
It was a monumental season for NHS’ program, which hadn’t been to the state tournament since 2011 or won a title since 2005. Neal will return four of his starters next year.
“Now, they have a whole open door to come back [to the state tournament] every year for the next [2-3] years,” Lyons said. “This means a lot to all of us. To set them up to get a ring, that's so big."
The Tigers might have known all along a title was a possibility.
Processing the accomplishment was still difficult as they departed the arena.
“From the beginning this has always been our goal, because that’s what we wanted,” Mattingly said. “We always said that, but still we’re here and what happened, it’s still hard to believe. It’s hard to believe, but we wanted it from the beginning. It’s a crazy feeling.”