BIRMINGHAM — The winning head coach sat down at the interview table inside Legacy Arena at the BJCC and felt the need for an introduction.

"First of all, my name is Melvin Allen, head coach of Oakwood Adventist Academy," Allen said. "Most of you guys know our journey from last year to here. Wow, we are just so thankful for all of you who supported us throughout last year. The media, the coaches, the fans, the state association, we want to thank all of you for making this day possible, not just our athletes but all student-athletes of faith."

He continued.

"This has been some journey, and these young men have worked hard since last year," Allen said. "They've used last year's situation as a motivation to get back here. We're just glad to be back here – playing, I should say – and have an opportunity to bring a state championship back to our little small school."

Truth is, an introduction was unnecessary following the Mustangs' 52-44 victory over an excellent Autagaville team in the AHSA Class 1A semifinals. It's not hard to be familiar with the journey that the Oakwood Adventist Academy boys' basketball team has been on since about last year. They were forced to forfeit a Northeast Regional semifinal game scheduled for when the Seventh Day Adventist school observes Sabbath. AHSAA refused to change the game time.

In May, the school filed a lawsuit against the AHSAA, stating religious rights were violated. In October, AHSAA voted to amend its rulebook to avoid similar situations.

Last week, Allen and his team earned a trip to Birmingham by winning the Northeast Regional at Jacksonville State. On Monday, they walked into Legacy Arena and onto the playing floor.

"It's a feeling that's really indescribable," Allen said. "I had chills and just was almost in tears that this day was a reality for our student-athletes and our student body."

Oakwood Academy was certainly well represented.

"As y'all know, sports has a special place in school morale," Allen said. "Our entire school had an opportunity to close today for the first time in the history of the school. We want to thank the sponsors for sponsoring them. You talk about an indescribable feeling, walking out and seeing them. The possibilities and the inspiration to keep this going is even more special."

What the Oakwood Academy faithful saw was a gritty effort to hold off Jaden Nixon and Auatagaville. Nixon, a 6-foot-4 senior, had 20 points, including a highlight-reel first-half dunk over a pair of defenders, with 14 rebounds, three steals and two assists. But he was just 7 of 27 from the field and 3 of 16 from outside the 3-point line. And he spent most of the game in foul trouble, finally fouling out with 2:09 remaining.

For the most part, Autagaville relied too heavily on the 3-point shot, which is not characteristic of their team. The Eagles were 6 of 36 on 3-pointers.

"I just felt like if we could keep them out of the paint and if we could contest their 3-point perimeter shooting, I thought we had a chance," Allen said. "We stuck with our game plan. They missed some big shots there. We were able to get them in foul trouble there, get in the bonus early and were able to make some free throws."

Oakwood Academy played seven players – all but one a senior – and each scored at least a bucket. Johnathan Walden had 14 points and eight rebounds, Camden Edmonds had 10 points, seven rebounds and three steals, and David Still had 12 points.

Now, it's to the final step of the journey. The Mustangs play Covenant Christian in the Class 1A championship game on Thursday at 5:45 p.m.

"It feels good," Walden said. "Last game (in the regional final), we were all in tears of joy. Today, we had a rough game, especially on the rebounds. I feel like if we want to win the state championship game, it will be on the defensive side, also on the boards. We need to work on that."

Don't miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.