Watterson High School boys basketball coach Vince Lombardo challenged his team to step up its defensive play against visiting Mifflin in a Division II district second-round game Feb. 28 after being outscored 21-14 in the third quarter.
The second-seeded Eagles responded by limiting the 16th-seeded Punchers to six points in the fourth quarter on 2-for-13 shooting, turning a 50-47 deficit into a 61-56 victory to improve to 22-1.
Watterson extended its winning streak to 16 games and advanced to play seventh-seeded Eastmoor Academy in a district semifinal March 6 at Olentangy.
Mifflin finished 9-14.
"We emphasized that we needed to get it done defensively first, down the stretch, and our kids really stepped it up on defense to hold Mifflin to a six-point fourth quarter," Lombardo said. "Prior to that, Mifflin shot the ball extremely well against our zone, so we had to play more man-to-man and extend our defensive pressure a little bit, and our guys stepped up and made some big plays at the defensive end within the last few minutes of the game."
On Mifflin's final four possessions, Watterson forced three turnovers and blocked a shot.
The Eagles took the lead for good at 58-56 when wing player Andy Grieser converted a three-point play with 1 minute, 20 seconds left. Wing player Matt Lehmann set up the play with a steal.
Lehmann had a team-high 18 points and seven rebounds and post player Bryan Jackson had 16 points and seven rebounds. Post player Matt Hughes added 14 points and six rebounds.
Watterson turned the ball over 15 times but forced 17 turnovers and outrebounded Mifflin 30-26.
"Give Mifflin a lot of credit because they defended us well and their pressure bothered us at times in the second half," Lombardo said. "Late in the game, I was glad to see us score some baskets inside instead of settling for jump shots. I'm pleased that we were able to survive and move on."
The Watterson-Eastmoor winner faces top-seeded Brookhaven or 15th-seeded Columbus East in a district final at 6 p.m. Friday, March 8, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
Brookhaven, which was 20-3 before playing East, handed the Eagles their only regular-season loss, 59-56 on Jan. 5. Randal Clarkson, a 5-foot-10 guard, led the Bearcats with 22 points and 6-5 post player Deiondray Martin scored 14.
Grieser had 17 points to lead Watterson.
Last year in their fourth district final appearance in a row, the Eagles lost to Brookhaven 57-43.
"It would be fun to play Brookhaven again, but we need to focus on each game as it comes," Lehmann said. "To keep winning in the tournament, we need to continue playing good defense to set up our offense."
Watterson beat East 57-32 on Jan. 12 behind the play of Jackson, who had 26 points and 11 rebounds. The Tigers, who were 11-12 before playing Brookhaven, got 13 points from 6-3 post player Marvin Thomas.
"The depth of teams in Division II is outstanding this season, so we knew there weren't going to be any easy tournament games," Lombardo said. "If we get to play Brookhaven again, we'll need to guard well and control their transition game."
The district champion advances to a regional semifinal March 14 at Bowling Green State University.