Basketball

Teams find many paths to postseason success

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

As the Watterson High School boys basketball team found out last season, a run to a state title can have an ominous start.

Despite being the second seed for the Division II district tournament, Watterson trailed Mifflin by three points in the third quarter of its postseason opener.

Considering the Eagles ended up with a 61-56 win over a Punchers team that had won just nine games and was seeded 16th, there was little evidence the victory would be the beginning of something special.

A week later, however, it all turned around for the Eagles. After overcoming a 12-point, third-quarter deficit to beat top-seeded Brookhaven 56-52 in overtime, Watterson's dreams of winning its first state title began to come into focus.

"After being able to beat (Brookhaven), we thought we had a shot at the championship," senior guard Cody Calhoun said.

The Eagles, according to coach Vince Lombardo, became a team with "momentum" on its side.

In a postseason that lasts about a month, that factor is one of many coaches believe can make the difference between having a long tournament run or a disappointing finish.

Defensive stops and finding success with a half-court offense are practical factors coaches often point to when trying to teach players about winning in the postseason.

Intangibles such as leadership, having experienced seniors and the gift of what Gahanna boys coach Tony Staib refers to as a chance to "press restart" also shouldn't be underestimated.

Then there's the type of talent -- either individually or collectively -- that ultimately can trump all of those elements.

On the way to the state title last season, Watterson had a senior leader in 2013 graduate Bryan Jackson, a defense good enough to hold one of its regional opponents to 34 points and a skilled junior class.

"There are a whole bunch of factors that come into play," Lombardo said. "You need a little bit of luck. You have to try to stay consistent with what you're doing. ... But certainly, without a doubt, that was the most talented team we've had."

Postseason preparation

The basketball season begins in late November for most central Ohio teams, usually includes about two weeks away from league play over the holidays and then there's a busy six to seven weeks before the postseason begins.

It's a long grind that separates basketball from most other prep sports.

"I've always thought you back off the kids and shorten practices (late in the regular season)," Pickerington North girls coach Dave Butcher said. "Having 70 to 80 practices over the course of a season in basketball is such a long time."

With the expansion of the regular season from 20 to 22 games beginning in 2012-13, teams more than ever before are taking advantage of competing in one-day showcases and scheduling strong non-league opposition in December and January.

The early weeks of February then are filled with league-title battles.

Dublin Coffman boys coach Jamey Collins said it's important for teams to then make a "shift in focus" for the postseason.

"We always say that tournament wins are worth twice as much as the regular season," Reynoldsburg girls coach Jack Purtell said. "I think everybody tries to get a regular-season schedule that will benefit you. One of the keys for us is to not act any differently or talk any differently (in the tournament)."

No team in central Ohio put behind its regular-season disappointments better than the Gahanna boys a year ago.

With several players missing time because of discipline issues, the Lions placed fifth at 9-5 in the eight-team OCC-Ohio Division. In the postseason, however, Gahanna beat Newark 64-54 in a Division I district final and Pickerington Central 53-50 in a regional semifinal before falling to Northland 62-53 in a regional final.

Newark and Central were two of four teams to share the OCC-Ohio title a year ago.

"Our team last year, when we had our full roster together, we only lost one game," Gahanna senior Javon Bess said. "I just felt like we jelled together (in the postseason) and played our roles."

Intangible factors

Having that type of chemistry is just one of the numerous less concrete reasons for postseason success.

For every coach and player with a goal of winning a district title, there seems to be a different key.

For Northland boys coach Sean Taylor, who guided the Vikings to a state semifinal last season, it's "toughness" because "it's a long season and everybody has nicks."

Pickerington Central senior guard Connor Kern, who helped his team win the Division I state championship in 2012 and a district title last year, points to discipline and having a tight team.

"Your bodies are worn down and there are no easy games after the (first two rounds)," he said. "With our team (in 2011-12), we were all good friends, and on the court you didn't catch us arguing."

Staib wouldn't trade having motivated players and leaders such as 2013 graduates Aaron Jackson, Troy Mundy and Ronnie Stokes Jr.

"No. 1, (teams that win in the postseason) have solid leadership," Staib said. "No. 2, I think you need a group of guys that want to do something special."

Taylor has coached a few players who he believes were exceptional leaders, including Ray Woods, who led his Eastmoor Academy boys team to a Division II district title as a senior in 2008.

Last season, 2013 graduate Armani Towns was the unquestioned leader behind Northland's run to the state tournament.

"You need leaders and people who can make others better," Taylor said. "You might be able to win in December and January with one guy, but you've got to play together to get the best results. We had chemistry, and Armani Towns was a great leader. We as coaches didn't have to say too much."

A winning formula?

Although there might not be a proven formula for winning in the postseason, Ready girls coach Joe Lang believes postseason games are decided by a few late-game, half-court possessions.

"The 'A' No. 1 thing is offensive execution," said Lang, who has guided the Silver Knights to four district titles in 33 seasons. "If you don't have patience and don't screen well, you're going to be settling for shots the defense wants you to take."

During the Africentric girls team's run to the Division III state final a year ago, it averaged more than 80 points during the regular season and district tournament. The Nubians then were held under 50 in three of their final four games, including a 67-49 loss to Anna in the state final.

Africentric took 70 shots compared to 45 for the Rockets and attempted just 13 free throws while Anna shot 36. Anna took better care of the ball on offense, according to Africentric coach Will McKinney.

"The officiating is very different (in the tournament)," he said. "Our job is to play good, stellar defense and maximize our possessions."

For Butcher, who coached the Pickerington girls team to six state titles from 1985-99, the postseason is like a chess match.

"There are so many issues you want to control," he said. "We do a lot of talking about our opponents and looking at who we might match up with."

Sometimes, though, even the best plans can't overcome star power.

Collins led Morral Ridgedale to a Division III district title in 2001 and has guided Coffman to a pair of Division I district championships since taking over in 2002-03. He also has been on the losing end in four district finals, including in 2005 to Brookhaven and in 2007 to a Northland team led by former Ohio State standout and current Boston Celtics player Jared Sullinger.

Jamelle Cornley, who was district Player of the Year his final two seasons at Brookhaven, had 11 points, seven rebounds and two steals in the fourth quarter to help the Bearcats overcome a 16-point deficit and beat the Shamrocks 58-55 in double overtime.

"With a lot of our success, you couldn't key on just one guy," Collins said. "But having that superstar does benefit you."

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