The jubilant screams emanating from the Upper Arlington High School girls basketball team's locker room after a 50-37 win over Newark in a Division I district semifinal Feb. 28 at Bloom-Carroll could be heard approximately 100 feet away, through a few doorways and concrete walls.
The 23rd-seeded Golden Bears had overcome a three-point first quarter to upset the 14th-seeded Wildcats and earn their first district final berth in nine years and a chance for the program's first district championship since 1989.
"We were aware (of the drought) a long time ago," said junior guard Kyle Croxton, who was born in 1995. "We've seen it on banners in our gym. The moment in there in the locker room was absolutely incredible, people screaming. It was the best feeling."
UA fell short of its first district title in 24 years, however, losing to top-seeded Reynoldsburg 62-19 in a district final March 2 at Bloom-Carroll to finish 14-12 overall.
Croxton and junior guard Chiara Paradiso each scored five points to lead the Bears, who missed their first seven shots and fell behind 16-0 less than four minutes into the game. The Raiders, who improved to 24-2 and advanced to a regional semifinal, led 33-12 at halftime and started the second half with a 21-0 run.
UA entered the district final not only riding a six-game winning streak, but also as the lowest remaining Division I seed in the state. The next lowest to reach a district semifinal was West Chester Lakota West, the 14th seed in the Southwest District. Lakota West lost to Mason 64-33 in a semifinal Feb. 23.
"We've not only had great games, we've had great practices every day. That we've carried that momentum over from practices to games is all the better," coach Chris Savage said.
"The bottom line is we have all five starters back next year and we're making a little run here. Every game, every practice is a bonus. We're so excited to get the program back to this level."
In its postseason opener, UA trailed 10th-seeded and host Pickerington Central by eight points in the first quarter of a first-round game Feb. 16, but outscored the Tigers 16-6 in the second quarter and, powered by junior forward Andi Norman's 17 points and eight rebounds, didn't trail again in pulling off a 45-42 upset.
That earned UA a home game in the second round, and the Bears defeated 29th-seeded Westerville South 53-43 on Feb. 20 to advance to a district semifinal for the fourth time in Savage's six seasons.
Since its only state championship in 1988, UA has appeared in a district final just four times. Before this season, the previous time was 2004, when the Bears lost to Pickerington North 64-33 in their first district final appearance since 1992.
"We just kept our heads held high," senior guard Holly Holsopple said. "We were the underdog. We were 8-11 at one point, but in this tournament we all knew we had nothing to lose. It wasn't necessarily the talent that brought us this far, but we were confident. We believed."
UA went 8-6 in the OCC-Central Division to place fourth, behind co-champions Dublin Coffman (12-2) and Hilliard Davidson (12-2) and Olentangy Liberty (9-5) and ahead of Central Crossing (6-8), Westland (6-8), Thomas Worthington (3-11) and Marysville (0-14).
The Bears lose four seniors in Holsopple, guard Macauley Mikes and forwards Katie Kapusta and Allee Overmyer. Mikes was the only starter of those four, but she was unavailable for the postseason after sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury in early February.
Mikes was named honorable mention all-league.
"They (the seniors) were the glue that kept us together at times this year," Savage said. "We went from 8-11 to 14-12. Anytime you get a winning record and get to this point with all five starters coming back, that's a very strong point for our program."
Among those expected to return are Croxton, Norman, Paradiso, junior guard Annika Wachtman, sophomore guards Taylor McGlade and Kellye McGlumphy and freshman forward Kortney Eisenman.
Norman averaged 12.5 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, and Paradiso averaged 5.7 points and was special mention all-league. Wachtman averaged 8.4 points.
"Kyle, Annika and Andi, they're fantastic shooters and they helped bring this team a long way," Holsopple said. "That confidence was contagious and we built off that. It was a really fun season."