ATHENS — The Eastmoor Academy boys basketball team is headed back to the state tournament for the second time in three years, this time a step up in class and a little wiser about what awaits.

Two years ago, the Warriors were in Division III and suffered a lopsided loss in a semifinal. This time, coming off a 69-48 regional final win over Vinton County on March 18 at Ohio University, they are in Division II, but more important, Tariq Brown said, they’re playing as one.

“Heart — we’re all about heart,” said the junior forward who, with 14 points, was one of four Warriors in double figures. “We love each other. We want to play with each other for the rest of our lives. We love the game of basketball.”

Coach Jim Miranda said that selflessness showed up strong against Vinton County (24-3). Eastmoor (22-6) methodically took control through the first half and kept it up through the second.

With Tim Smith (16 points, 8 rebounds) and Brown (8 rebounds) holding sway inside, and Zion Parham and Taevion Kinsey turning up the defensive heat on the outside, the Warriors limited the Vikings to 17-of-44 shooting from the field. The pressure paid dividends, as did the 12 offensive rebounds.

“We wanted to play team defense,” Miranda said. “We’ve been harping on that for the last four games. We concentrate on neutralizing their best kids and making them work, and that was successful again.”

It seemed simple when he put it that way, but getting back to the final four is never easy.

“It’s the culmination of a whole lot of hard work,” Miranda said. “There’s about half the team that was here two years ago, they were freshmen and sophomores … they got to get on the floor in the fourth quarter and actually won the fourth quarter against a very good basketball team. But they vowed they would be back.”

The team dealt with distractions last season, even Miranda had to miss some games because of illness and the death of his mother.

“The kids got refocused and they were willing to sacrifice, come in early in the morning at 6 o’clock and shoot,” Miranda said. “Those things pay off in the long run.”

The snippets of the nets at OU’s Convocation Center each player left with were proof of that.

“We’re coming out hoping to have a better time than last time; I don’t know, we did pretty bad,” Parham said, recalling a 62-34 state semifinal loss to Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph in 2015. “We’re going to come out and play our best ball and hopefully win.”

Just the feeling of having a shot, though, “I can’t even explain it, it’s a great feeling,” Parham said. “Just hoping to get the state championship and get that ring on my finger.”

Eastmoor will face Wauseon (26-1) in a state semifinal at 10:45 a.m. March 23 at Ohio State.

tmay@dispatch.com

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