After a 44-34 loss to Olentangy Liberty on Feb. 7, Dublin Coffman High School boys basketball coach Jamey Collins challenged his players to improve their games if they planned on advancing in the Division I district tournament.
The Shamrocks responded by winning five of their next six, including a 61-50 victory over Newark in a district final March 8 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
"These guys feel comfortable in the last few weeks of what we're trying to do and what we're trying to accomplish basketball-wise," Collins said. "We had a little tough stretch in there where we had to find ourselves a little bit. The great thing about these kids is they listened and learned ... (and made) just a couple little adjustments that we needed to make."
Ninth-seeded Coffman pulled away late from fifth-seeded Newark as junior guard C.J. Saunders scored the Shamrocks' final 16 points. He finished with a team-high 22.
It was the Shamrocks' first district title since 2010, when they defeated Marion-Franklin 78-59 before losing to Gahanna 59-53 in a regional semifinal.
"This feels right," Saunders said of winning a district title. "I remember being a ball boy always coming here (to the Fairgrounds) and now playing (in a district final here), it's unreal."
The Shamrocks were 19-5 before playing Northland in a regional semifinal March 12 at the Fairgrounds. The Vikings, who were the district's top seed, improved to 21-4 by defeating Westerville Central 64-53 in a district final March 8.
The semifinal winner plays Pickerington Central or Upper Arlington in a regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at the Fairgrounds.
UA is 24-1 and Pickerington Central is 20-5 entering their regional semifinal Thursday, March 13, at the Fairgrounds.
The Golden Bears, who were seeded third in the district, beat Coffman 42-39 on Feb. 14. That was the Shamrocks' last loss before playing Northland.
UA also defeated Coffman 43-40 on Jan. 10. The Bears won the OCC-Central Division at 13-1 and the Shamrocks were third (10-4).
UA defeated second-seeded Gahanna 55-49 in a district final March 8, while sixth-seeded Pickerington Central advanced by beating fourth-seeded Zanesville 58-42.
Pickerington Central, which shared the OCC-Ohio title at 11-3 with Gahanna and Newark, is without Ohio State signee Jae'Sean Tate (torn labrum in right shoulder) and coach Jerry Francis (health issues).
The regional champion advances to a state semifinal March 21 at Ohio State.
Against Newark, Coffman was able to remain in control for most of the fourth quarter despite playing without sophomore forward Luke Vargo, who sat out the final 6 minutes, 44 seconds with four fouls.
Vargo left the game with his team leading 42-35 and, led by Saunders, Coffman maintained its advantage.
"When one guys goes down, we have another guy to put in and that's the beauty of this team," Collins said. "Our second five probably could play about even with our first five if we go at it in practice. They all bring a little different type of talent, but it doesn't change much when one guy comes in for another."
Newark closed to within 46-43 on Grant Russell's two free throws with 4:14 left.
Saunders made a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 52-45, and Newark never got closer than six points after that.
Vargo had 14 points, sophomore Sam Payne scored 10 off the bench and the Shamrocks made nine 3-pointers.
"It was really exciting. You really don't have that happen too much," said guard Nate Axelrod, who is the only senior on the team and accepted the district title trophy after the game. "My teammates mean everything to me. They were the ones that really won this game. It was really exciting and I wanted to share it with them."
Jordan Dartis led Newark with 27 points.
Coffman advanced to the district final by defeating seventh-seeded Walnut Ridge 50-47 in a semifinal March 5 at Liberty. Noah Vollmer's layup with 2:14 left provided what proved to be the winning points, and Axelrod added two free throws with 7 seconds remaining.
Walnut Ridge led by as many as 11 points in the third quarter before Coffman answered with an 11-0 run to tie the game at 34 heading into the fourth.
Saunders led the Shamrocks with 13 points.