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GAINESVILLE -Just before last Friday night's vital district game between the host Oak Hall Eagles and the visiting Bronson Eagles, the public address announcer noted that Bronson head coach Kelly Beckham had recently marked his 525th career win, and his 500th win at Bronson High School.
Just after the announcement, Bronson laid the foundation - a strong first quarter - that led to their edge-of-the-seat 54-50 win over Oak Hall.
Oak Hall seemed to grab the advantage, as Luke DiPerna opened the game with a three-pointer. But William Harris answered for Bronson, then dished to Terrance Dukes to quickly put the blue Eagles ahead. DiPerna scored again, but Kelby Barber swished one from just inside the arc to maintain the Bronson lead. James Rivers added two free throws, and C.J. King had a layup and one to put Bronson up 11-5 in the first. A foul away from the ball negated Rivers' late three, and that takeaway would drive Oak Hall for the next two quarters.
The maroon Eagles were hot to maintain the home advantage, and exploited Bronson's attentive defense for an incredible number of and-ones and shooting fouls. Oak Hall went to the line six times in the second quarter, including one trip by DiPerna, who was one shy of perfect from the line that night. DiPerna also had a three, and Skyler Neale added five points as Oak Hall recovered and went ahead 23-19 at the half.
With Bronson in the hole and struggling from the field, senior Terrance Dukes took charge of the second half. He opened up with a three, then led Bronson's shooters to go inside and draw fouls, scoring 10 of the blue Eagles 14 third quarter points.
Bronson needed every one of them, as Oak Hall bombed from outside. DiPerna, Paul Martin and Nick Hendricks combined for 12 points outside the arc, as the maroon Eagles maintained a 40-37 lead going into the fourth.
Now Bronson, energized for the last quarter, went on an eight-minute tear. Dukes fed Rivers on the baseline, and then Barber stole the inbounds at the other end, letting Dukes score on the break. Barber had another deep jumper from the baseline and Rivers dished to Dukes for another fast break layup. Rodolfo Contreras found Rivers for a cut-in shot and Bronson led 47-44.
With three minutes left and a three-point lead, Bronson stalled and moved the ball. At two minutes, Dukes suddenly drove the center, made the basket and got the foul. The free throw bounced, but Rivers leapt up and polished off the rebound.
Oak Hall clawed back, as DiPerna got twice to the line and made all four shots, cutting the lead to one.
Bronson stalled again, and Rivers was holding the ball when the foul came. He made both free throws, but missed the next two when he was again fouled.
Holding a three-point lead and enough time for anything to happen, the blue Eagles held their breaths as Contreras was the last to go to the line. He made one of two, complicating the margin and forcing Hendricks to take the downtown heave before the buzzer – no good.
Pencil in a dogfight for any trip to Oak Hall. Beckham said he'd been expecting a battle.
"We knew it was going to be a war," he said. "We knew it would be tough here."
Despite the early lead, small disturbances led to changes in advantage.
"We lost that basket at the end of the first quarter, and that was a huge momentum swing," Beckham said. "But coming down the stretch, we got the lead and held the ball. Then we were able to run some clock."
Dukes got credit for his leadership as Bronson trailed. "Terrance played very well tonight," Beckham said. "He had a good floor game, both physically and mentally and did everything we asked of him. A lot of times he got bumped on the way to the basket, but he kept battling."
Bronson: Terrance Dukes, 21; James Rivers, 19.
Oak Hall: Luke DiPerna, 27; Skyler Neale, 11.