For the first time in 15 years, the Westerville North High School boys basketball team will be adding to the collection of banners on the gymnasium wall.
The Warriors clinched the OCC-Cardinal Division championship outright with a 61-49 victory over Worthington Kilbourne on Feb. 8, giving the program its first league title since the 1997-98 season.
"It's great to be able to have a banner up there on the wall," senior guard Brett Durden said. "It's great for us and it's great for coach (Kevin) Thuman because it's been a long time since we have won one."
North is 12-0 in the OCC-Cardinal. Dublin Scioto is second (10-3), followed by Westerville South (9-4), Hilliard Darby (7-6), Westerville Central (6-7), Kilbourne (4-9), Dublin Jerome (3-9) and Hilliard Bradley (0-13).
"It's something we haven't had in 15 years, so it's big," senior guard Jack Gibbs said. "It's something we have talked about since the end of last season."
Senior guard Jaylen Benton had a team-high 17 points against Kilbourne. Gibbs had 16 points, including four 3-pointers, and junior forward Isaiah Keene scored 10.
North is ranked fourth in the Division I state poll behind Northland, Cincinnati Walnut Hills and Norwalk and second in the area coaches poll behind Northland.
The Warriors will play host to South on Friday, Feb. 15. They have won three consecutive games in the series, with their last loss coming in the 2010-11 season. They swept South last season, winning 59-53 and 71-68 in overtime, and won 69-64 on Jan. 11 behind 20 points from Gibbs, 17 from Benton and 11 from junior center Alex Stewart.
"We beat them twice last year and the first time we played (this season), so you know they are going to be ready," Gibbs said.
Senior forward Marcus Ball had 28 points to lead South in the first matchup.
"The emotions are going to be running high and it will be a close game," said senior guard Adrian Cook, who had seven points in the first meeting with the Wildcats. "It's always a great game."
Durden transferred to North prior to last season after playing at DeSales in the 2010-11 season. He understands the importance of the North-South rivalry.
"We want to be able to go without losing to South in our junior and senior years," he said. "That would mean a lot to us because we're all friends (with the South players) and we know each other pretty well."
North closes the regular season Tuesday, Feb. 19, with a league game at home against Jerome. The Warriors beat the Celtics 53-38 on Jan. 29 as Benton had 22 points, Gibbs scored 10, Cook scored nine and Stewart scored eight.
North defeated Bradley 73-50 on Feb. 5 behind 14 points from Stewart and 10 from Benton and Gibbs.
The Warriors are seeded second of 42 teams in the district tournament behind Northland and will face 39th-seeded Logan in the first round Feb. 23 at home. The winner plays host to 40th-seeded Columbus West in the second round Feb. 27.
"It's great recognition for the season we have been able to put together and the good teams we have played in and out of the league," Thuman said of receiving the second seed. "But the bottom line is the seeding really doesn't matter a whole lot because you have to beat several good teams to win a district title. You still have to prove yourself when you reach the postseason."
Girls team set to face Wolves for third time
The girls team was 20-1 overall before playing DeSales on Feb. 13.
Seeded sixth, North opens the Division I district tournament against 36th-seeded Kilbourne in the first round Saturday, Feb. 16, at home. The Warriors swept the Wolves in OCC-Cardinal play, winning 61-38 on Feb. 8 and 56-46 on Jan. 7.
Sophomore guard/forward Symone Simmons had 25 points and sophomore forward Devin Jackson scored 10 in the first meeting with Kilbourne. In the second matchup, Simmons had 16 points, junior forward Kelsey Walker scored 10 and senior guard/forward Gabrielle Pace scored nine.
The winner plays ninth-seeded Pickerington North or 37th-seeded Marion-Franklin in the second round Wednesday, Feb. 20, at the home of the higher seed.
The Warriors have not played either team this season. Pickerington North enters the postseason 14-8 and Marion-Franklin is 8-13.
The second-round winner plays seventh-seeded Olentangy, 21st-seeded Mount Vernon, 25th-seeded Westerville Central or 34th-seeded Darby in a district semifinal Feb. 28 at Jonathan Alder.
The Warriors finished 14-0 in the OCC-Cardinal, ahead of Jerome (9-5), Scioto (9-5), Bradley (8-6), Central (7-7), South (5-9), Darby (4-10) and Kilbourne (0-14). The league title is their first since the 2004-05 season.
On Feb. 5, the Warriors defeated Bradley 42-35 behind 10 points from Simmons, eight from Walker and seven from senior guard Breyonia Hearn.