Upper Arlington News

Boys Basketball

Bears advance to state tournament

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The last time the Upper Arlington High School boys basketball team advanced to the state tournament, World War II was on the horizon and none of the Golden Bears players' parents -- let alone the players themselves -- were twinkles in anyone's eyes.

But when guard Kevin Vannatta was asked last week how much the program's first state appearance since 1939 would mean to the program, coach Tim Casey signaled to his senior that he would answer the question.

"All year long, it's been a case that you can't get to state unless you take care of business one step at a time," Casey said after a 63-53 win over Pickerington Central in a Division I regional semifinal March 13 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. "We have to keep playing better to give ourselves an opportunity."

On March 15, the Bears got their opportunity -- and Vannatta got a chance to answer the question.

The UNC-Asheville signee turned in a dominating performance, racking up 27 points and 19 rebounds as UA defeated Northland 50-36 in the regional final at the Fairgrounds to continue its historic run.

The regional final appearance was the Bears' first since 1942.

"For all of this to come true is unbelievable," Vannatta said. "Our whole community, not just our high school, is out here. Upper Arlington has really supported us and it feels great to win. It's a beautiful thing. (The state tournament) has been our goal ever since we were in third or fourth grade."

UA improved to 26-1 and takes a 25-game winning streak into a state semifinal matchup against Trotwood-Madison at 8:30 p.m. Friday, March 21, at Ohio State. The state final is at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 22, at OSU.

Wes Davis added nine points and four rebounds against Northland, which was tied for 10th in the final state poll. The Bears never trailed, leading 12-6 after the first quarter, 21-19 at halftime and 32-31 after the third quarter.

UA held Northland to only one field goal while outscoring the Vikings 18-5 in the fourth quarter. Still, the Bears had a precarious 34-32 lead with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left before taking command.

Vannatta helped UA pull away, making a layup and two free throws, forcing a turnover and assisting on a layup by Harrison Heath. After making a steal, Vannatta, despite being closely guarded by Northland's Seth Downs, made a pinpoint pass to Heath.

"I have to give some credit to our strength coach (Brian Coleman) because I had to put all my muscle on that pass," Vannatta said.

"Everybody teases me about being the strong kid, but I didn't have to be on that play," Heath said. "I made sure no one was around me and just got the layup. I had the feeling that was it, that nothing would stop us from that point."

UA, which closed the game on a 12-2 run, sealed the win at the foul line, making 12 of 14 free throws in the fourth quarter and converting 19 of 22 for the game. Vannatta went 14-for-16 from the line.

Vannatta's performance against Northland came on the heels of amassing 29 points and seven rebounds against Pickerington Central and 26 points and five rebounds in a 55-49 win over Gahanna in a district final March 8.

UA, which won its first district championship since 2007, won its only state title in 1937. That was the first of three consecutive state appearances.

"Our guys were never shaken (against Northland)," Casey said. "We missed a couple layups and turned it over a couple times, but I never questioned whether we'd win. ...

"I've talked all year long about this being a special group. They are. They've proved to be some of the most special individuals that I've ever coached. (I am) just so proud of them."

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