After losing three consecutive games, the Licking Heights High School boys basketball team reeled off five victories in a row, winning by an average margin of 32.6 points.
The Hornets were 17-4 overall and 12-1 in the MSL-Cardinal Division before closing the regular season Feb. 15 against Fisher Catholic.
A win would have secured a second consecutive outright league championship. Licking Heights was one game ahead of Grandview, which was 11-2 in the MSL-Cardinal before playing Harvest Prep on Feb. 15.
The Hornets split with Grandview this season, winning 60-46 on Dec. 14 and losing 61-56 on Jan. 22, but the Bobcats lost to West Jefferson 53-43 on Feb. 9, opening the door for Licking Heights to win the title outright.
"You never want to lose games, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise because we learned a lot about ourselves," coach Nathan Clark said. "We learned that we can't just show up and out-athlete our opponents. We've got to work to get defensive stops and value every possession. We're doing that now and we're finishing strong."
Licking Heights is seeded ninth of 27 teams in the Division II district tournament and will play host to 20th-seeded Big Walnut in the first round Saturday, Feb. 23. The winner will face seventh-seeded Eastmoor Academy or 26th-seeded Licking Valley in the second round Feb. 28 at the home of the higher seed.
The second-round winner will play second-seeded Watterson, 10th-seeded Bexley or 16th-seeded Mifflin in a district semifinal March 6 at Olentangy.
The matchup with Big Walnut will be Licking Heights' second in 11 days. The Hornets beat the Golden Eagles 67-49 on Feb. 12 at home.
"We feel pretty good about our draw and it should help that we get to start the tournament at home," said guard John Righter, who was averaging 17.5 points and 2.3 assists through 21 games. "We're hoping for the same outcome, but we better be ready to play mentally."
Righter had 19 points to lead the Hornets, who led 12-3 after the first quarter, 25-15 at halftime and 49-29 after the third quarter. Guard Babe Murphy had 14 points and guard DeAnthony Hosley and forward Dante Burnette scored 10 and eight, respectively.
Forward Adam Shaheen had 16 points, including three 3-pointers, to lead Big Walnut, which was 6-15 before playing Franklin Heights on Feb. 15. Post player Zachary Asher had 10 points and guard Matt Tarney scored nine.
"Shaheen didn't play in the first half and scored 16 in the second half, so we need to find a way to slow him down," Clark said. "He's 6-foot-6 with a lot of length and Asher is 6-4 with length. They can shoot it pretty well."
Shaheen was averaging 16.6 points and guard Zach Laughman was averaging 11.2 through 21 games.
"We're going deeper on the bench now and we're trusting everyone," Murphy said. "Dante Burnette has been phenomenal and (guard) Ty Green and (forward) Tyler Sims are hound dogs on defense. Everyone has stepped up on defense. We're talking, moving our feet and not gambling."
Through 21 games, Murphy was averaging 20.1 points, followed by Righter (17.5), Hosley (8.2) and Burnette (6.9). Murphy also was averaging 8.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 3.5 steals. Righter and Hosley were averaging 2.3 assists and Green was averaging 2.9 steals.
"After (the losing streak), we spent so much time on defense, that's all we did," Righter said. "Our defense leads to our offense. We're playing very well right now and everybody is getting involved. We're playing more as a team."
Licking Heights, which beat Millersport 86-44 on Feb. 9, has not played Eastmoor this season but defeated Licking Valley 89-57 on Dec. 6.
Girls basketball team places fourth in MSL
The girls basketball team beat Fisher Catholic 45-42 on Feb. 8 in its regular-season finale to improve to 11-11 overall.
Seeded 18th of 26 teams in the Division II district tournament, Licking Heights faced sixth-seeded DeSales in the first round Feb. 16. The winner will play host to 25th-seeded Lakewood in the second round Wednesday, Feb. 20.
The Hornets beat Lakewood 38-32 on Dec. 18 as guard Skyler Ortiz had 16 points and point guard Dameras Whitlock scored eight.
Against Fisher Catholic, Whitlock had 12 points and post player Crystal Jackson had 11 points and 13 rebounds.
The Hornets finished 6-6 in the MSL-Cardinal to place fourth, behind Liberty Union (11-1), Berne Union (9-3) and West Jefferson (8-3) and ahead of Fisher Catholic (4-8), Grandview (3-9) and Millersport (0-11).
West Jefferson and Millersport must make up a league game. Harvest Prep did not have a team this season.
Wrestling team starts postseason
The wrestling team played host to a Division II sectional tournament Feb. 16.
The top four finishers in each weight class advanced to the district tournament Friday, Feb. 22, and Saturday, Feb. 23, at Heath.
The top four finishers in each weight class at district will advance to the state tournament Feb. 28-March 2 at Ohio State.