FORT WALTON BEACH — Crestview High School’s Denzel Ware is headed to the University of Kentucky to play football in the fall, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play a little basketball.
The Bulldog senior post player was at his best with the District 1-7A championship on the line Saturday against a tenacious Niceville High School team at Fort Walton Beach High School’s Viking Gymnasium.
Ware proved his worth on the both defensive and offensive ends of the floor in the final 83 seconds of the game. Ware took a charge from Niceville’s Nick Morken with game tied 55-55 and 1:23 left in the fourth quarter. And as the final seconds clicked off the clock he powered into the lane to hit the game winning shot to give the Bulldogs a 57-55 win and the district title.
“I wasn’t worried about them calling the charge,” Ware said of his strong move to the basket. “He (the defender) wasn’t set and I pulled up and made the basket to win the game.
“I wasn’t worried about it all.”
With the game tied and less than 90 ticks left on the clock Bulldog Coach Greg Watson decided to play for the last shot that would give Crestview the win.
“I thought we had a little momentum going and I was just going to see if they (the Eagles) were going to stay zone (on defense),” he said. “If they were going to go man we were going to pound it inside. They stayed zone.
“Ultimately I was going to say we are either going to win it or go to overtime. Luckily we made a play and it didn’t go to overtime.”
The win didn’t come easy as one night after sending home host Fort Walton Beach, the No. 2 seed in the tournament, the Eagles (8-17) were looking for their second upset in as many nights.
Niceville got off to a fast start taking a 7-0 lead in the first 3:43 of play.
While the Eagles soared early the Bulldogs struggled against the Niceville zone defense.
Ware was 0-4 from the free throw line in the first three minutes of play and Crestview (21-6) missed several shots from point blank range.
Tay King broke the Bulldog scoring drought with a 3-point basket at the 4:17 mark in the first quarter.
King’s bucket seemed to spark Crestview as Ronnie Baylark, Jerry Aaron and Rusty Moorer scored to give the Bulldogs an 11-7 lead.
Crestview led 16-11 at the end of the first quarter but the Eagles came back in the second quarter behind strong play from Kameron Parker and Jalen Douglas.
Niceville went to the intermission with a 26-25 lead.
A Baylark 3-pointer to open the second half gave the Bulldogs a temporary 28-26 lead.
Jeff Toney answered with a 3-point basket of his own to put Niceville back on top. The Eagle lead went to 33-28 when Morken was fouled by Baylark as he hit a 3-pointer. The free throw gave Morken the rare 4-point play.
Niceville was up by seven to start the fourth quarter and the Eagles led 49-41 with 5:18 left in the period.
King’s second 3-point basket of the night pulled the Bulldogs to within five.
Niceville was up 54-48 with 3:47 left in the game after a Toney 3. Toney’s basket was the last field goal the Eagles would hit in the game.
Crestview tightened up the defensive pressure and the offensive intensity down the stretch.
King’s final 3-point basket of the night cut the Eagle lead in half. Toney’s free throw, which game with 3:05 was the last Niceville point.
Ware hit a pair of free throws with 2:52 left in the game to close the Niceville lead to 55-53. A driving basket by Moorer with 1:35 showing on the clock tied the game.
Twelve seconds later Ware took the Morken charge to give the Bulldogs the ball.
Watson called timeout with 20 seconds left and set the final strategy.
“The last time out I just challenged them (the Bulldog seniors) and said, ‘This is your last chance to do this. You’re not going to ever get this opportunity back,’” Watson said. “This is a credit to them and hopefully this is something they will cherish their whole life.”
Baylark and his teammates made sure to savor the moment as 15 minutes after lifting the district championship trophy they were still on the court.
Baylark and Ware started as freshmen and endured two coaching changes making Saturday’s win even more special.
“This is unbelievable that we’ve been able to do it while playing for three different coaches with different styles,” he said. “I’m truly blessed. This is just amazing.
“I’m glad I did it with Denzel. I just love the man.”
Ware led the Bulldogs with 14 points. King and Baylark each scored 12.
Crestview hosts Leon in the Class 7A region quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Randy Dickson is the Crestview News Bulletin’s sports editor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet him @BigRandle, or call 682-6524.