New Albany High School boys basketball coach Sam Davis spent several minutes after a 60-44 win at Big Walnut on Feb. 5 telling his players the biggest improvement they need to make entering the postseason is on defense.
Moments later, he admitted he was happy his team needed a workmanlike effort and a late run to stave off Big Walnut and win its first OCC-Capital Division championship in two years.
"Their game plan was good and they played a lot of zone to slow us down," said Davis, whose team is 19-2 overall and 13-0 in the league. "They ran a patient offense to keep the game close. Last time, we decided the game by a bigger margin (a 73-31 win Jan. 4). But what I really like about our kids is the fact that we shared the ball and we didn't turn it over against their pressure. We didn't defend as well as we have been, but we did when it mattered and we put a nice run on to finish the game strong."
Hanging on to a five-point lead in the third quarter, senior guard Avery Schneider hit two 3-pointers, put back a missed 3 by senior guard Jack Serbin and followed up junior guard Darrell Miller's 3-pointer with a foul shot to make it 43-32. Big Walnut never got closer.
New Albany went 13-1 two years ago to win the OCC-Capital, its first league title since winning the MSL-Ohio in 2005-06. The Eagles joined the OCC the next year.
But don't mistake the Eagles' happiness for satisfaction.
"We've won (the league) outright, but that's not our goal," Schneider said. "If we go undefeated, that's huge. That's a really great feeling. We have a great team this year. Everyone has just come together. It's a great feeling. It honestly is."
Olentangy has been the only league opponent to stay within five points of New Albany. The Eagles swept both meetings, winning 43-38 on Dec. 22 before hanging on for a 46-43 win at home Feb. 1 to secure at least a tie for the league title.
The Eagles clinched without the player who led them most of the way there. Senior guard Jalen Rhea, an American University signee who is averaging 20 points per game, sustained an ankle injury in a 52-40 win over Delaware on Jan. 29. He missed the next four games, but Davis expects Rhea to return for the regular-season finale Friday, Feb. 15, at Mount Vernon.
"We definitely can't try and take over as one individual," Schneider said. "Honestly, no one person can fill (Rhea's) role. He's obviously the best player on our team. We all try and pitch in equally and do our job a little better so we can fill what he brings us."
Senior forward Devon Pitts had 17 points and Serbin had 14 at Big Walnut. Serbin had 12 points, Pitts had 11 and Schneider had 10 in a 54-33 win Feb. 8 over visiting Watkins Memorial.
With the league title clinched, Davis' thoughts quickly turned to the Division I district tournament. The fourth-seeded Eagles play host to 34th-seeded Marysville in the first round Feb. 22, and with a win they would play 28th-seeded Mount Vernon at home Feb. 27.
"The way we've defended at times is not going to be good enough to get us to our ultimate goal. We commit too many fouls at times," Davis said. "We'll always have some improvements to make."
Girls basketball team preps for tournament
The girls basketball team could have home games in each of the first two rounds of the Division I district tournament.
The Eagles, who finished the regular season 14-8 overall and 10-4 in the OCC-Capital, play host to Thomas Worthington in a first-round game at 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16. The winner will play Grove City or Olentangy Liberty in a second-round game at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20. The better-seeded team plays host to games in the first two rounds.
New Albany was voted 13th in the district draw, Liberty is 17th and Grove City is 26th.
The second-round winner will play top-seeded Reynoldsburg, Columbus West or Franklin Heights in a district semifinal at 6 p.m. Feb. 28 at Bloom-Carroll.
"If we play good basketball in the first two rounds, I think we have a shot against Reynoldsburg, but we have to play well," coach Jeff Blunt said. "Both of those games are going to be tough. It's nice, too, that we'll be home and we have a tough game in the first round. I'd rather go that way than have somebody we'd beat up by 30 or 40 points. We have to stay focused and play good basketball the rest of the way."
New Albany has some knowledge of Thomas because the teams scrimmaged in November. The Cardinals, who are 7-14 and finished 3-11 in the OCC-Central, are led by 5-foot-10 senior guard/forward Frannie Frazier, a Ball State signee, and 5-10 senior forward Mariana Bonilla. Frazier had a game-high 18 points for Thomas in a 49-37 loss to Hilliard Davidson on Feb. 8.
"Generally speaking, we're pretty happy with where things landed," Blunt said.
Swimmers place high in sectional
The girls swimming team placed second and the boys were third in a Division I sectional meet Feb. 9 at Thomas, and combined to advance 12 swimmers and all relays to the district meet Saturday, Feb. 16, at Ohio State.
Sophomore Taylor Berend's first-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle (55.79 seconds) and fourth-place effort in the 200 IM (2:19.49) led the girls team to 239 points, behind champion Thomas (311), as 13 teams scored. Senior Haley McLellan, a University of Cincinnati signee, was third in the 200 free (2:02.33) and 100 backstroke (1:02.43) to earn the 10th seed for district in both events.
The boys team had 13 finishes in the top 10 to score 201.5 points as Westerville South (216) won and 11 teams scored. Senior Phillip Smoyer was third in the 50 free (22.66), the 200 free relay was second (1:32.18) and the 400 free (3:24.21) and 200 medley (1:44.53) relays both were third.
The winner of each sectional event qualified for district. In addition, 27 at-large district berths were awarded in each event based on times from the Central, East and Southeast sectional sites. The top two placers in each swimming event at district automatically advance to the state meet Feb. 21-23 at Branin Natatorium in Canton. In addition, 16 at-large state berths will be awarded for each swimming event based on times statewide. The top three boys divers and top four girls divers at district advance to state.
Wrestlers heading to Westland sectional
The wrestling team will compete in a 10-team Division I sectional tournament Saturday, Feb. 16, at Westland.
The Eagles, who finished 1-6 in the OCC-Capital, join the host Cougars, Central Crossing, Delaware, Dublin Scioto, Grove City, Hilliard Davidson, St. Charles, Upper Arlington and Worthington Kilbourne in the field.
The top four individuals in each weight class from each sectional -- the others are at Marysville, Pickerington North and Watkins Memorial -- advance to the district tournament Feb. 22 and 23 at Hilliard Darby.