The Watterson High School boys basketball team had overcome early deficits during its postseason run, but it wasn't able to do so against second-ranked Norwalk in the Division II state final.
The fourth-ranked Eagles, who had won their first regional and state championships last season, trailed by 12 points at halftime en route to a 65-58 loss on March 22 at Ohio State to finish 26-3 overall.
Norwalk, which captured its first state title, finished 29-1.
"We've been slow starters the last few games and, even though we were able to come back to win them, coach (Vince Lombardo) warned us that if we kept putting ourselves in that position, we eventually weren't going to be able to do it," senior point guard Cody Calhoun said. "We've come back to win eight games when we were down at halftime this season, so we always believe we have a shot at coming from behind to win any game. But this time, we dug ourselves too big of a hole against a good team and it came back to bite us."
Norwalk coach Steve Gray said his defensive game plan was to clog the paint to force the Eagles to take shots from the perimeter. The strategy worked, as Watterson went 19-for-57 (33.3 percent) from the field, including only 4-for-24 on 3-point attempts.
Norwalk made 19 of its 40 (47.5 percent) shots from the field, including four of its nine 3-pointers.
"They did a nice job of taking the inside away from us, which is normally fine for us because we usually shoot the ball well from the perimeter," Lombardo said. "We took a few more 3-pointers than usual, but I have great confidence in our guys and I usually just try to stay out of their way when it comes to offense. We had good looks that we normally knock down, so I don't regret those at all. We just didn't shoot as well as we normally do."
Calhoun made two free throws to put the Eagles ahead 10-8 midway through the first quarter, but it would be their first and only lead. They were outscored 23-9 over the remainder of the first half to trail 31-19 at halftime.
Norwalk stretched its lead to 14 points early in the second half and led 42-33 after the third quarter. The Eagles would get no closer than four points in the fourth quarter.
"Norwalk's run in the first half was big because we spent the rest of the game battling back," Lombardo said. "We made some nice runs to get back in the game, but give Norwalk credit, because every time we were real close, they made a big play. We just couldn't get over the hump."
Senior post player Matt Hughes had 23 points and 10 rebounds to lead Watterson, with Calhoun and senior wing player Matt Lehmann adding 15 and 11 points, respectively.
Ben Haraway led Norwalk with 29 points, going 12-for-16 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Watterson defeated 12th-ranked Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 56-51 in a state semifinal March 20 at Ohio State, as Lehmann had 19 points and Hughes scored 11.
The Eagles had beaten the Fighting Irish 55-52 in last year's state final.
"I couldn't be more proud of the way our team executed our game plan," Lombardo said. "To beat a team as talented as Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary twice in the last few years on a big stage like this is very special."
Watterson turned the ball over on its first three possessions and trailed 7-0 in the first quarter before rallying to take a 30-21 lead into halftime. The Eagles increased their lead to 14 points in the third quarter, only to see the Irish rally to tie the game at 42 with 5 minutes, 56 seconds left.
Led by Lehmann, Watterson outscored St. Vincent-St. Mary 14-9 over the remainder of the game. Lehmann scored 13 points in the fourth quarter, going 8-for-8 from the foul line.
"I tried my best to block out the crowd (9,615) and just make my free throws," Lehmann said.
The Eagles defeated New Concord John Glenn 60-46 in a regional final March 15 at Ohio University behind Lehmann, who had a career-high 24 points, 12 rebounds and four steals.
Two days earlier, Watterson rallied from a four-point halftime deficit to beat Logan Elm 62-45 in a regional semifinal at OU. Hughes had 26 points to lead the Eagles, who outscored the Braves 34-13 in the second half.
Watterson rolled to a district championship as the top seed, beating 13th-seeded Sparta Highland 77-40 in the second round Feb. 25, 10th-seeded Bexley 76-51 in a semifinal March 5 and second-seeded Brookhaven 48-28 in a final March 7 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The Eagles went 8-0 in the CCL for the second year in a row to capture their third consecutive league title. Hartley, Ready and St. Charles all went 4-4 to tie for second, followed by DeSales (0-8).
"It was important to us to be able to beat St. Charles and DeSales twice and to keep our streak in the CCL going," Hughes said.
Watterson, which was 53-4 over the last two seasons, loses all five starters in Calhoun, Hughes, Lehmann, senior post player Joe DiOrio and senior wing player Andy Grieser and its first three players off the bench in senior guard Tommy Geraghty and senior wing players Ryan Lewis and Greg Oman.
Hughes averaged 13 points, six rebounds and two steals and was second-team all-state and first-team all-district and all-league, and Lehmann averaged 12 points, five rebounds and two assists and was third-team all-district and first-team all-league.
Grieser, who averaged 11 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals, and Calhoun, who averaged eight points and two assists, were honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league.
DiOrio averaged eight points, eight rebounds and two assists and was honorable mention all-district and second-team all-league.
Among the players eligible to return are juniors Matt Froehle (post player), Avery Janning (post player), Ben Kaminski (guard) and Noah Matteson (post player) and sophomore Nate Boone (post player). None saw playing time in the state tournament.
"Our seniors are a great basketball group and great young men," Lombardo said. "They have a way of stepping it up when they need to and it's been an amazing run these past few years. It's been an honor to coach them."