Having established his reputation 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 second-seeded Gahanna.
The 6-foot-3 senior guard helped set the tone with a few powerful layups in the opening minutes, followed by a reverse layup and a pair of 3-pointers from 20 feet or more on his way to a game-high 26 points and five rebounds in a 55-49 win at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The third-seeded Golden Bears, who closed the back-and-forth game on a 10-2 run, won their first district title since 2007. UA, which improved to 24-1, will play Pickerington Central in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13, at the Fairgrounds.
"As a program, we're all strong. I just had the chance tonight to showcase it," said 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 Griff (Caldwell), Danny Hummer and Logan (Richter), and I just tried to help my team out."
Hummer had nine points and Richter and Wes Davis each added six for UA, which was 20-for-35 from the field in a game that featured 12 lead changes and five ties.
Richter made what turned out to be the winning layup with 1 minute, 59 seconds remaining, and Caldwell provided insurance with a layup off of a pinpoint pass from Hummer with 40 seconds left.
"Everyone expected me to step in," Caldwell said. "It's the 'next man up' mentality."
Javon Bess, a senior guard and Michigan State signee, had 20 points to lead Gahanna, which finished 22-4.
Fist pumps, hugs and a celebration with a raucous student section erupted after the final buzzer, helping erase the pain of early-round tournament exits in each of the past two seasons.
In 2012, UA was seeded seventh and led 12th-seeded Mount Vernon by seven points late in the third quarter of a second-round game, but the Yellow Jackets went on a 15-0 run en route to a 55-42 win.
Last season, Olentangy's Joe Morycz made a layup at the buzzer in a first-round game to beat UA 43-41.
"It feels really good for all the hard work to pay off through all of the tough times," Vannatta said. "To finally have this feeling is great. But that's tonight. Tomorrow, we're going to get right back to it. This isn't the final time we want to have that feeling."
The Bears advanced to the district final by defeating 12th-seeded Grove City 55-45 in a district semifinal March 5 at Marysville. Vannatta had 14 points and seven rebounds and Hummer added 10 points for the Bears, who held the Greyhounds to 15-for-38 shooting and pulled away by outscoring Grove City 36-19 in the middle quarters.
Central, which was seeded sixth in the district, won its third consecutive district title March 8 and improved to 20-5 by defeating fourth-seeded Zanesville 58-42.
Senior guard and Arkansas State signee Connor Kern had 22 points to lead the Tigers, who pulled away by holding the Blue Devils to three field goals in the first 12:25 of the second half.
The Tigers, who went 11-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division and tied Gahanna and Newark for the league championship, are playing shorthanded.
Senior forward and Ohio State signee Jae'Sean Tate has been sidelined since late January with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and coach Jerry Francis has been away from the team since early January after suffering a stroke and undergoing back surgery.
Other top players for Central include junior guard Rodney Culver, who had 11 points and 11 rebounds against Zanesville, and 6-5 sophomore forward Jalen Tate.
"They're very talented, very athletic. They're long. They really get to the basket," coach Tim Casey said.
"Kern is a really good shooter. He is money from the free-throw line (where he was 9-for-10 against Zanesville). They're formidable. They have the experience. They've been there before. We have our work cut out of us."
The regional semifinal winner will face Northland or Dublin Coffman in the regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at the Fairgrounds.
The Vikings and Shamrocks, who played March 12, were seeded first and ninth, respectively, in the district.
UA swept Coffman in OCC-Central play, defeating the Shamrocks 43-40 on Jan. 10 and 42-39 on Feb. 14.
The Bears did not play Northland during the regular season.
The regional champion faces Trotwood-Madison, Huber Heights Wayne, Middletown or Cincinnati Moeller in a state semifinal March 21 at Ohio State. The state final is March 22 at OSU.