Kinta has qualified for state four years running, but hopes for some better memories for this year's trip to the State Fair Arena, commonly known as the Big House.
The Eagles appeared to be ticketed to a trip to the state finals in 2016, only for heartbreak to ensue.They were the No. 1 team in Class B in 2017, and fell behind in the state semifinal before a massive comeback effort fell short. Kinta failed to make the Big House in 2018 after losing in the state quarterfinals.
What’s more, Kinta’s three losses those three years all came against the eventual state champions.
This year, the Eagles are No. 1 in Class B again, losing only twice along the way to Clayton and Quinton. They’ve been the top team in Class B all year, and now are on the verge of their first gold ball ever after qualifying for state Feb. 22.
Kinta went to state in 1964, losing to Arcadia, 60-24. The Eagles got back in 1977, losing to New Lima, 68-25.
The Eagles would get a taste of the Big House in 2012 when Robert Chastain was at the helm. But Kinta wouldn’t have another long wait to return to state.
Jim Jenson coached the Canadian girls to the Class A state crown in 1998 and the Alva girls to the Class 3A state crown in 2003 before coming over to Kinta.
Jenson has been knocking at the door to win one in boys basketball, too, but his first trip to the state tournament at Kinta almost did not happen.
Kinta was the third-ranked team in Class B in 2016 with a core of upperclassmen leading the way. Tyler Corbit and Ricky Thom were seniors. Brett Williams and Justin Pile, both from Barbados, were juniors.
The four of them were on the verge of returning Kinta to the state tournament until losing the Area II championship at Catoosa against LeFlore.
But Kinta notched its ticket to state by beating Paden in the area consolation final with Pile's putback in the final seconds.
“He took the three and they didn’t get Justin blocked out and it came right off the front of the rim,” Jenson said. “It couldn’t have came anymore perfect.”
Kinta then nearly gave up a 52-46 lead with 17 seconds remaining in the state quarterfinals against Boise City at the Mustang Event Center.
Pile came in clutch again for the Eagles with a free throw for a late 53-52 lead, but Kinta had fouled Whitfield.
“When we committed the foul, I turned to my assistant (James Ray), and said, ‘We just got beat,’” Jenson said.
But Whitfield missed the front end of a one-and-one at the line and missed the putback attempt at the buzzer as Kinta escaped. Kinta stormed to its team bench, hugging one another in front of an ecstatic crowd of blue and white in the stands.
Kinta was off to the Big House after nearly losing an elimination game twice, but it would have to pull another rabbit out of its hat if it wanted to advance to the state championship for the first time in history.
Rock Island Conference rival Red Oak was the top-ranked team all season long and the two teams previously met Feb. 1, when Red Oak ran away with a 63-40 triumph.
But Kinta jumped out to an early lead and took a 43-32 advantage into the fourth quarter at the Big House.
A team that was mere seconds away from being eliminated twice appeared to be on its way to the state title game.
However, Red Oak's Brad Davis went off for 19 points in the fourth quarter to bring his team all the way back for the win and send Kinta home.
“He didn’t believe he could miss,” Jenson said. “He couldn’t miss. It didn’t matter if one was on him or three was on him."
Kinta’s 26-5 season ended in heartbreak in 2016, but the Eagles set out the next year to prove they were no fluke. Red Oak had moved up to Class A, so there was guaranteed to be a new champion in Class B.
Gone were Thom and Corbit, but stepping up were Jude Johnson and Mark Lovelace to help Kinta become the top-ranked team in Class B. Williams served as the distributor for the Eagles, and he was named the MVP of the 2017 Dee Foster Invitational in Pittsburg. Johnson was the team’s center.
The Eagles went 19-6 during the regular season, holding that top-ranked spot in Class B all season just like this year. They went through the district and regional rounds without missing a beat, but once again, LeFlore was an obstacle for Kinta.
The Savages held a 32-24 lead after three, and Kinta tried its hand at a comeback. Williams had a bucket that eventually tied the game, but LeFlore prevailed in the end, 45-43, for the area championship at Quinton.
Kinta had its backs against the wall again. It was win-or-go-home in the area consolation final against another Rock Island Conference rival in Whitesboro.
“It was a quick turnaround, but as I pointed out to the guys, that’s the situation we had been in before,” Jenson said.
Johnson balled out, getting 17 points and 16 boards while racking up three rejections and two swipes as the Eagles prevailed, 51-24, against the Bulldogs. They won the rebounding edge, 26-14.
“That particular night was one of the best defensive games we probably played all year,” Jenson said.
The Eagles had the pleasure of playing in the state quarterfinals in the Big House against Webbers Falls, the No. 5 team in Class B. Kinta and Webbers Falls had previously matched up in December 2016 in the Porum Tournament championship game. The Eagles took a 53-51 loss.
Kinta began with a strong start to the tune of an 8-0 run and extended its lead up to 20 points at one time in the game. All three of Johnson, Lovelace and Williams scored double digits for the Eagles. Johnson had 35.
It was a 54-30 lead for Kinta after three. Webbers Falls tried to rally in the fourth, but the Eagles triumphed, 69-52.
“We were a lot more focused coming out than we were in that tournament,” Jenson said. “...For whatever reason, we weren’t ready to start the game at Porum.”
Kinta ran into Davis the year before, and now it was about to run into another formidable player in the semifinals: Riley Island of Calumet.
Island graduated from Calumet in 2018, finishing as the 19th leading scorer in the history of Oklahoma boys basketball with 2,769 points, and on that day, Kinta saw what he was all about. Island had a triple double, scoring 32 points, pulling down 11 rebounds and dishing 10 assists.
“He could shoot it half-court, or he drive to lane and get a layup or a foul,” said Cameron Ray, who is now a senior at Kinta and was a sophomore on that team.
“That tournament he was on a hot streak,” twin brother Braden Ray added.
“We didn’t play well in the mornings, and we kind of just walked in there still asleep,” Cameron Ray said.
Calumet’s third quarter consisted of five 3-pointers and led, 48-27, at one point and 52-39 after three.
However, Kinta was not about to go down easy, trying to do to Calumet after being on the receiving end of a Red Oak fourth quarter comeback the year before.
Williams scored 17 points in the game, but he fouled out. Still, there was Lovelace and Johnson. There was Braden Ray and Thomas Taylor, and they were going to try their hand at erasing Kinta’s deficit.
“He went out, so we knew other guys had to step up in order to try to make a comeback,” Braden Ray said.
Johnson posted a team-high 22 points, and Lovelace had eight. The latter had a steal to a layup with 1:02 remaining. Kinta was down, 69-64.
However, the Eagles would not come any closer. Calumet pulled away, 74-66, and took care of business against LeFlore the next day, 63-54, for its fourth gold ball in history.
“We made a run at it,” Jenson said. “We just didn’t get all the way back.”
Kinta again made it back to state in 2018, but it was once again the area consolation bracket. The No. 12 Eagles lost to top-ranked Earlsboro, 63-51, in the regional championship at Webbers Falls.
The Eagles went to Stroud for area, besting Burlington, 68-35, Varnum, 54-47 and Timberlake, 51-42, to return to state.
However, Kinta again met Red Oak in the state tournament, but it wasn’t as close as to years prior. Red Oak began on an 8-0 run and had a 14-3 lead after one. It reeled off a wire-to-wire 58-37 win the quarterfinals at Southern Nazarene University.
No. 2 Red Oak then rolled against Leedey at the Big House in state semifinals and claimed another gold ball, 47-46, against Earlsboro in the state championship double overtime.
Kinta’s three wins away righting those wrongs, and the Eagles are scheduled to play unranked Braggs at 7 p.m. at Yukon on Thursday. The Eagles previously won, 92-57, in the Nov. 1 season opener at home.