When asked about the impact senior forward Armani Towns had this season after his team lost 80-69 to Mentor in a Division I state semifinal March 22 at Ohio State, Northland High School boys basketball coach Sean Taylor could not hold back tears.
"He's a fighter, a competitor and a leader," Taylor said. "I love him."
Towns was the only key senior for the Vikings, who finished 28-1 overall and made their third state appearance in five seasons.
Northland, which was ranked No. 1 in the final state poll, was outscored 24-15 in the fourth quarter by eighth-ranked Mentor. The Vikings led 46-41 with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Cardinals answered with a 7-0 run and never trailed again, although the game was tied at 58 and 61 in the fourth quarter.
Mentor made 13 of 16 free-throw attempts and was 5-for-7 from the field in the fourth quarter, during which freshman forward Seth Towns, junior guard Shemar Waugh and junior post player Jaylen Tucker each picked up his fourth foul.
"It makes guys tentative when they don't know if a ref is going to call a block," Taylor said. "I wish we could have rebounded better. We said that if we won the rebounding battle or if it was close, we'd have a good chance to win."
Mentor outrebounded the Vikings 27-19 and finished 26-for-31 from the foul line.
Junior guard Ty Hairston led the Vikings with 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field, including 3-for-7 from 3-point range. Armani Towns and Seth Towns both had 12 points, junior guard Derek McKeithen scored 11 and Tucker scored 10.
Northland cut what had become a seven-point deficit to 70-65 with a pair of free throws by Waugh with 2:48 remaining, but the Cardinals made 10 of their next 12 foul shots to seal the outcome.
The Vikings also were hindered during the fourth quarter by Armani Towns (leg cramp) and Seth Towns (knee) having to sit temporarily with injuries.
Senior forward Jeff Foreman had 20 points to lead Mentor, which went on to defeat Toledo Rogers 76-67 in the state final March 23 to finish 25-5.
Northland beat Rogers 71-69 in its opener Dec. 1 at Pickerington Central.
"It was a tough loss," said Armani Towns, who believes that he and Seth Towns might be cousins. "Seth and the other guys will step up next year and hopefully have an opportunity to win the championship."
The only other senior on Northland's roster was forward Ben Baffoe, who did not play against Mentor.
In addition to beating Rogers, the Vikings defeated 2012 state champion and eventual district champion Pickerington Central 58-42 on Dec. 8 in a non-league game.
Northland went 14-0 in the City League-North Division, including a pair of overtime wins over Brookhaven (63-61 on Jan. 8 and 59-57 on Feb. 8).
The Vikings then beat Africentric 55-53 in overtime Feb. 16 in the City championship game to win their seventh consecutive City title and extend their winning streak in City League games to 104.
The top seed in the district, Northland beat 42nd-seeded Hilliard Bradley (71-39 on Feb. 22), 41st-seeded Central Crossing (104-50 on Feb. 27), 20th-seeded Walnut Ridge (79-43 on March 6) and third-seeded Olentangy Liberty (52-48 on March 9) to win its fifth district title since 2007.
The Vikings beat Canton Timken 74-47 in a regional semifinal March 13 and Gahanna 62-53 in the regional final March 16 to advance to state.
Armani Towns averaged a team-best 13.6 points and was named first-team all-league and second-team all-district and made the ThisWeek Super 12. McKeithen (10.6 points per game), Tucker (9.8 ppg) and Waugh (7.5 ppg) all made second-team all-league and Seth Towns (9.8 ppg) was honorable mention all-league.
Hairston did not play in the first seven games but averaged 10.5 points over the final 22 and was named honorable mention all-district along with Seth Towns, Tucker and Waugh.
Junior guard Jhustus Cornley (2.7 ppg) also was a key player off the bench during the postseason. Sophomore post player Doug Taylor and junior guard Donte Smith were other contributors.
"Everybody thought we were going to fall off because of all the seniors who left last year," Seth Towns said. "Everybody was pretty much a brotherhood and we knew we weren't going to lose games."