Pickerington High School Central boys basketball interim coach Eric Krueger pounded the same message into his team for three days leading up to a Division I district final against Zanesville on March 8.
“Defense, defense, defense,” Tigers guard Connor Kern said. “(Krueger) was definitely drilling it into our minds all week in practice. We worked on ball screens a lot to not let them go around the middle screen. That helped our defense out a lot.”
After fourth-seeded Zanesville made its first four field goals, sixth-seeded Central took command by adding an effective transition game to its stingy defense. The Tigers held the Blue Devils to three field goals in the first 12 minutes, 25 seconds of the second half to pull away, winning 58-42 for their third consecutive district title.
“We have to sit down and guard,” Krueger said. “That’s the only way you’re going to win at this point.”
Kern had a game-high 22 points, nine of which came in the first four minutes, and Rodney Culver added 11 for Central (20-6). J.T. McFarland’s 18 points led Zanesville (23-2), which limited Central to 17-for-46 shooting. Meanwhile, Zanesville was only 17-for-44.
Central will play Upper Arlington in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. March 13 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. The Tigers and Lions split two regular-season meetings in OCC-Ohio play, and Gahanna ousted Central in a regional semifinal last year.
“We had so many unfinished plays in the first half,” Zanesville coach Scott Aronhalt said. “We didn’t rebound the well as we thought we would (Central outrebounded Zanesville 34-30), and that’s as big as anything. We thought we could catch them down in the post and off some screens. Today, for whatever reason, they played really well (and) we couldn’t play at our best when we needed to.”
Upper Arlington 55, Gahanna 49
Having made his name largely as a scorer, Kevin Vannatta of the Upper Arlington High School boys basketball team relished the chance to flex his muscles March 8 during a Division I district final against Gahanna.
Vannatta helped set the tone with a few powerful layups in the opening minutes followed by a reverse layup and a couple 3-pointers from 20 feet or more, scoring a game-high 26 points with five rebounds in a 55-49 win at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The Golden Bears (24-1), who finished the game on a 10-2 run, won their first district title since 2007.
“As a program, we’re all strong. I just had the chance tonight to showcase it,” said the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Vannatta, a UNC-Asheville signee who is averaging 17.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. “My team put me in a good position with good passes from (Griffin Caldwell), Danny Hummer and Logan (Richter) and I just tried to help my team out.”
Hummer added nine points, and Wes Davis and Logan Richter added six each for UA, which shot 20-of-35 from the floor and advanced to play Pickerington Central in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. March 13 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
Michigan State signee Javon Bess led Gahanna (22-4) with 20 points.
The game featured 12 lead changes and four ties. Logan Richter made what turned out to be the winning layup with 1 minute, 59 seconds remaining, and Caldwell provided insurance on a layup off an pinpoint assist from Hummer with 40 seconds left.
“We attack when there are opportunities and we’ve tried to make teams guard us when we have those open-court opportunities,” Bears coach Tim Casey said. “That’s kind of how we’ve played most of the year.”
Manny Powell added 10 points for Gahanna, which was seeking a second consecutive district title and fourth in five years.
“They had the edge in experience,” Gahanna coach Tony Staib said, referring to UA’s seven seniors. “They have a group of guys who are experienced. They execute very well.”
— Dave Purpura
Dublin Coffman 61, Newark 50
The Dublin Coffman High School boys basketball team won its first Division I district title since 2010 with a 61-50 win over Newark in a district final March 8 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
Coffman improved to 19-5 and will play Northland in a regional semifinal Wednesday, March 12, at the Fairgrounds.
The Shamrocks last played in a district final in 2010, defeating Marion-Franklin 78-59. Coffman lost to Gahanna 59-53 in a regional semifinal.
Newark, which lost in the district final for the third consecutive year, finished the season 20-5.
Coffman junior guard C.J. Saunders scored his team’s final 16 points and finished with a team-high 22 points.
The Shamrocks played most of the fourth quarter without sophomore forward Luke Vargo, who left the game with 6:44 remaining with four fouls. Vargo, who did not return, finished with 14 points.
Sophomore guard Sam Payne came off the Coffman bench to score 10 points.
Coffman connected on nine 3-pointers.
“These guys feel comfortable in the last few weeks of what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish basketball-wise,” Coffman coach Jamey Collins said. “We had a little tough stretch where we had to find ourselves a little bit. The great thing about these kids is they listened and learned.”
Junior Jordan Dartis led Newark with a game-high 27 points.
Newark remained in the game at the free throw line, making 15 of 16 chances in the fourth quarter. Dartis had his team’s only basket in the fourth as time expired.
“We knew they had a lot of kids that could score,” Newark coach Jeff Quackenbush said. “Literally, they have 12, 13 kids on their team that can all come in and play basketball. When they have the lead, they’re really hard to guard. They made some huge shots. Our kids continued to battle.”
— Frank DiRenna
Northland 64, Westerville Central 53
The Northland High School boys basketball team won its fifth Division I district title in six years, defeating Westerville Central 64-53 on March 8 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The Vikings improved to 20-4 and will play Dublin Coffman in a regional semifinal Wednesday, March 12, at the Fairgrounds.
Coffman defeated Newark 61-50 in the first district final March 8.
Central finished the season 19-6.
Derek McKeithen led Northland with 20 points followed by Shemar Waugh with 14 and Jaylen Tucker with 10.
Tucker added 11 rebounds.
“We have a lot of experience,” Northland coach Sean Taylor said. “We’ve played in big games this year, so we’re figuring out how to finish games. We knew it was going to be a tough task. I saw them against Delaware and they play extremely hard. They came out on us and brought the fight to us. I’m proud of my guys, they buckled down and finished it strong.”
The eighth-seeded Warhawks remained in contention before top-seeded Northland pulled away in the final two minutes.
Central closed within 54-50 with 2:00 left on Jalen Malone’s two free throws and Eric James’ 3-pointer before the Vikings sealed the win with a 7-0 run.
McKeithen’s three-point play highlighted the decisive spurt.
Northland was just 14 of 30 from the free throw line, but hit seven in the final two minutes.
Central led by as many as six points in the second quarter as James scored 16 of his game-high 24 points in the first half.
Malone finished with 19 points.
The Warhawks’ final lead was at 36-35 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
“(Northland) made some plays,” Central coach Donovon Barrett said. “There’s a spot about midway through the third where we did what we wanted to do and unfortunately nothing good came out of it. We attacked the rim about three or four times and we didn’t get anything out of it and they came down and capitalized on a couple of our misses.”
— Frank DiRenna