On first glance, it took two-tenths of a second for the New Albany High School boys basketball team's dreams to be dashed.
But even before Olentangy Orange's Nick Deitsch's last-second tip-in propelled the 18th-seeded Pioneers to a 46-45 upset of the fourth-seeded Eagles in a Division I district semifinal March 6 at Pickerington North, New Albany coach Sam Davis was afraid his team's play was inviting disaster.
"We didn't keep our composure tonight. We had guys chirping at each other," Davis said.
"When we played Marysville (a 63-61 first-round win Feb. 22), we were playing not to lose and I think the same thing happened tonight. The game was close. If we could have had a two-possession lead, I think we would have played a little more relaxed. We shot the ball extremely quick tonight. You have to give (Orange) a lot of credit."
The Eagles defeated the Pioneers 68-54 on Dec. 7 and 54-34 on Jan. 18 in OCC-Capital Division play, but the Pioneers led the third meeting 22-20 at halftime. The game was tied at 33 after three quarters and 41 after four. Neither team led by more than three points after halftime.
Senior forward Devon Pitts' 3-pointer 39 seconds into overtime gave New Albany a 44-42 lead. Liberty's Declan Feery hit a turnaround jumper moments later to make it 44-all, and neither team scored again until Eagles senior guard Jalen Rhea hit a foul shot with 16 seconds left to give New Albany a 45-44 lead. But Rhea missed his second free throw, and the Pioneers raced up the floor until Hunter Jenkins took a 3-point shot from the left corner with 3 seconds to go. He missed, but Deitsch found himself under the basket for the putback just before the buzzer.
Rhea had a game-high 20 points to lead the Eagles, who finished 22-3 overall.
"We were trying to get a shot off (before time expired) so we'd have a chance at an offensive rebound. That's always the goal," said Deitsch, who had six points. "I wasn't worried about the buzzer going off. I just worried about finishing the layup and that's what happened."
Brandon Blake had 14 points, Feery had 12 and Brady Harris added 10 for Orange, which committed only two turnovers in the second half and nine for the game.
"(The Eagles) fight, they really fight. They're an extremely tough team," Pioneers coach Anthony Calo said.
New Albany was seeking its first district championship since 2006, when the Eagles advanced to a Division II regional final and lost to Dayton Dunbar 77-54. New Albany was the top seed in a district tournament bracket that also featured fifth-seeded Dublin Scioto, sixth-seeded Zanesville and seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman, but it was Orange and 10th-seeded Pickerington Central that met in a district final March 9 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, with Central winning 62-55.
Orange upset Zanesville 52-48 in the second round March 1. New Albany advanced with a 52-23 win over OCC-Capital foe Mount Vernon in a second-round game Feb. 28.
The Eagles went 14-0 in the OCC-Capital to win their second league championship in three years. They clinched with a 60-44 win at Big Walnut on Feb. 5 and finished ahead of Delaware (11-3), Olentangy (10-4), Orange (8-6), Franklin Heights (5-9), Mount Vernon (3-11), Watkins Memorial (3-11) and Big Walnut (2-12).
New Albany, which won its league games by an average of 21.9 points, loses four senior starters in Pitts (9.0 points, first-team all-league, honorable mention all-district), Rhea (19 points, first-team all-league, first-team all-district), guard Jack Serbin (9.9 points, first-team all-league, honorable mention all-district) and guard Jonathan Tolber, who missed the first several weeks of the season with a torn right meniscus.
The only starter expected to return is junior guard Avery Schneider, who averaged 7.4 points and was special mention all-league. Junior guard Trey Miller was honorable mention all-league.
"The thing about our team is when we're good, we're shooting well and defending well and sharing the ball," Davis said. "(Against Orange) we defended pretty well, but not nearly well enough and we didn't share the ball. We just didn't play the kind of team basketball that has made us as good as we have been."