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Kitchens Cooks the Eagles

January 25, 2023 - 00:00
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Senior pours in 26, KHS overcomes adversity to hand Weatherford first loss

  • Kitchens Cooks the Eagles
    CADEN KITCHENS watches a 3-point shot during the first half of Kingfisher’s win over previously-undefeated Weatherford in the Buckle of the Wheatbelt championship game. Kitchens scored 26 points to lead the Jackets to their seventh straight title in the
  • Kitchens Cooks the Eagles
    KINGFISHER’S BENCH reacts after Jud Birdwell made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the first quarter during last Saturday’s championship game at the Buckle of the Wheatbelt Invitational. Birdwell’s bucket was the start of a game-changing 18-0 run by

It was a somber mood in the Kingfisher High School boys basketball coaches’ office on Friday night.

Sure, the Yellowjackets had just disposed of Guthrie 69-44 to put themselves in position to win their seventh straight Buckle of the Wheatbelt Invitational title the next night.

Looming was Class 4A’s third-ranked, undefeated and mostly untested Weatherford in that title game, a team more than capable of putting an end to Kingfisher’s epic win streak.

Figuring out how to score against the Eagles’ vaunted 1-3-1 zone defense or slow down the unstoppable C.J. Nickson certainly had them concerned, but still weren’t the reasons all three coaches were sick to their stomachs.

It was because 90 minutes earlier they saw one of their senior leaders crumpled on the floor, the result of his knee giving way in the first half.

Maddox Mecklenburg had to be helped off the APB floor and was next seen on crutches.

“You hate to see anyone hurt. It gets magnified when they’re a senior,” said head coach Jared Reese.

“And then you think about the rest of the guys and how it affects them because they’re all so close. And then you think about how it affects what you want to do as a team.”

Mecklenburg’s injury means moving the pieces around on offense. It means a defense predicated on pressure might have to back off a bit. It means foul trouble to one player now holds more significance than before. It means the steady seven-man rotation was down to six.

“It changes so much for us,” Reese said.

And yet, Weatherford loomed in less than 24 hours.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. “But we’ve got to figure it out.”

••• Apparently the coaches figured out something.

Weatherford may very well be a team that hoists a gold ball in the next few years, but the Buckle of the Wheatbelt title still belongs in Kingfisher.

In front of a near-capacity crowd at the APB, the Jackets rode the momentum of a dominant stretch in the second quarter to a 61-51 victory in the title game of the 21st annual tournament.

It snapped the Eagles’ 16-game win streak to start the season and gave KHS its seventh consecutive Buckle of the Wheatbelt championship.

“There were a lot of keys to the game,” Reese said. “But first and foremost, the guys came out and played with a lot of pride and a lot of heart.”

It also helped that they made most of their shots and rarely turned the ball over.

The Jackets shot 60 percent for the game, capping an amazing weekend of shooting inside their home gym.

They also had 17 assists and just four turnovers.

“That last part was so big for us,” Reese said. “Not turning the ball over against them is so important and we took care of the ball all night.”

The first quarter was an absolute shootout.

The Eagles were 6 of 7 in the quarter and made all three 3-point attempts.

Nickson was the biggest culprit as he scored 10 points in the quarter.

“And we were guarding him well,” Reese pointed out.

The sophomore put the Eagles up 15-14 late in the quarter, but the Jackets had a few seconds left to try to reclaim the lead.

That chance fell in the hands of Jud Birdwell, who let a 3-pointer fly at the buzzer.

It found its mark and sent all of Kingfisher’s faithful into a frenzy.

It also kickstarted the decisive stretch of the game.

The Jackets held their guests scoreless for the first six minutes of the second quarter.

Xavier Ridenour knocked down a 3-pointer with 3:05 to play in the second and Drake Friesen stole the ensuing inbounds pass. The ball found its way to Cash Slezickey, who buried his second trey of the quarter.

That gave KHS a 3015 lead and prompted a Weatherford timeout.

Ridenour added free throws at 2:07 for a 32-15 advantage, making it an 18-0 run.

Nickson scored seven straight to end the half - giving him 17 of Weatherford’s 22 points - but the Eagles still trailed by 10.

Tate Sage opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer, making it a 10run for Weatherford.

But Jax Sternberger scored on Kingfisher’s next set and that seven-point spread proved to be the closest the Eagles got the rest of the night.

Nickson ended his night with 24 points and five rebounds.

The Eagles also got 10 points and six boards from Nate Reherman and 10 from Sage.

The Jackets got major contributions in one form or another from all “six starters.”

Sternberger had the task of guarding Nickson much of the night and considerably slowed him in the second half.

He scored two points and also had five assists and three deflections.

Birdwell notched five points in the game while Slezickey scored six points to go with a game-high six assists without a turnover. He also played all 32 minutes.

Friesen scored eight points and was 3 of 4 from the field, including making both 3-point attempts.

It capped a big weekend for him as he scored a career- high 20 points (4 of 4 from 3-point range) in the semifinals.

For the tournament, Friesen was 10 of 12 (83.3 percent) from the field.

The senior nailed a dagger of a 3-pointer late in the fourth quarter that sent fans from both sides to the exits.

“He came up so big for us those last two nights,” Reese said. “It was right when we needed it and we’re going to continue to need it.”

Ridenour poured in 14 points and had four rebounds and four assists.

Then there’s the “Cowboy.”

Caden Kitchens fixed a half-mile of fence during the day and turned into a scoring Superman at night.

Kitchens scored a career- high 26 points in the championship clincher.

The senior was 9 of 14 overall and 3 of 5 from beyond the arc.

For the tournament, Kitchens shot 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) which included 7 of 11 (63.6 percent) from long range.

“It was a massive game,” Reese said. “And he delivered. He’s got a way of step-ping up like that for us.”

As a team, KHS was 72 of 119 (60.5 percent) from the field over the three days.

They had 56 assists against 30 turnovers.

“All of that is great and I’m really proud of them,” Reese said. “I think a lot of people counted them out, especially after Maddox got hurt.

“At the same time, we’ve got to go right back to work. We’ve got a massive week ahead of us and then we have to do this (host Weatherford) again in two weeks.”

The Jackets were set to host 5A No. 7 El Reno on Tuesday (after press time). “I reminded them of what happened last year,” Reese said. “We won our tournament, felt pretty good about ourselves, then went over there and got beat.”

El Reno handed KHS its lone loss last year.

On Friday, the Jackets host No. 8 Weatherford, the final game before the final rankings are released prior to playoff assignments.

“We still have a lot of work to do this week and we still have a lot of big games ahead of us,” Reese said. “And we still have some things to figure out. We rode a lot of adrenaline on Saturday, but we were gassed. We’re going to have to find another guy or two who’s ready to step up.”