Tasked with facing undefeated and top-ranked Harvest Prep in a Division III state semifinal March 22 at Ohio State, the Africentric Early College boys basketball team proved up to the challenge.
The Nubians also showed for the first two quarters of the state final March 24 that they were more than capable of handling the state's No. 2-ranked team, undefeated Cincinnati Deer Park.
However, an 11-point lead over Deer Park midway through the third quarter wasn't enough of a cushion to help Africentric earn its first state championship under coach Michael Bates.
The Nubians were outscored by 19 points over the final two quarters and lost 67-57 to finish 22-7 overall.
Deer Park finished 29-0.
"I'm extremely proud of my team, our school, our community and our assistant coaches because this was one heck of a ride," Bates said. "There's no reason for them to hang their heads down. All we really ask for is an opportunity. You get an opportunity and you've got to shoot your shot and live with whatever the consequences are. Right now this hurts, but I'm sure pretty soon I'll be able to look back and be extremely proud of what we accomplished this season."
Africentric took a 36-27 lead into halftime after junior guard Anthony Bowman was fouled attempting a 3-pointer just before the second-quarter clock expired and made all three free throws.
A layup by senior guard James Hodge gave the Nubians a 40-29 lead with 5 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter, but the Wildcats scored the next six points before Hodge hit a 3-pointer with 3:56 remaining in the quarter to put Africentric ahead 43-35.
Deer Park then closed the quarter on an 11-2 run to take a 46-45 lead, marking its first lead since midway through the second quarter.
Africentric pulled within 50-48 after a 3-pointer by Tre' Baumgardner with 5:16 left, but Deer Park went on another 11-2 run to seize control.
The Wildcats limited the Nubians to 8-for-25 shooting from the field and forced 12 turnovers during the second half.
"I felt like we were ready," Baumgardner said. "We just didn't finish, but it was a heck of a season."
Baumgardner was a key reason Africentric made its third state tournament appearance in 12 seasons under Bates.
Bates was an assistant in 2005 when the Nubians won the Division IV state final under former coach Mike Thornton but later had the title taken away when it was determined they had used an ineligible player.
The Nubians advanced to state with a 42-39 victory over Archbold in a regional final March 17 at Bowling Green. The win meant family bragging rights for Bates, whose father, Leroy Bates, guided Toledo Libbey to a state semifinal in 2000 and a state runner-up finish in 2008 in his only two state appearances.
Michael Bates also led Africentric to state semifinals in 2011 in Division III and 2012 in Division IV.
Against Deer Park, Baumgardner finished with 17 points and three rebounds, sophomore guard Calijha'won Davis had 11 points and four rebounds, junior forward Dorian Holloway had nine points and 10 rebounds and senior forward Jah Bennett added seven points, eight rebounds, three steals and four blocked shots.
Baumgardner, who was named district Player of the Year and first-team all-state, closed his prep career with 995 points.
"They came out a little harder (in the second half) and came out with a little bit more pressure," Bates said. "We were a little loose with the basketball that third quarter. We didn't finish some shots at the rim. We just got a little bit out of sync and they were at the rim doing a great job rebounding. They were very physical and we didn't adjust very well to their physicality in the second half.
"They went out of their way to take Tre' away from us, and the other players we have on our team that could have made plays tried to make some plays and we just didn't complete those plays. ... They played a very good game in the second half."
In the state semifinal, Baumgardner had 22 points, five rebounds and six assists and Holloway had 13 points and six rebounds as the Nubians edged Harvest Prep 54-52. The Warriors finished 28-1.
Seeded second in the district tournament, the Nubians beat 23rd-seeded Horizon Science 68-28 in the first round Feb. 26, 22nd-seeded East Knox 77-25 in the second round March 3, fifth-seeded Galion Northmor 68-49 in a semifinal March 6 and ninth-seeded Johnstown 59-43 in a final March 9 at Ohio Dominican.
Africentric, which beat Carey 62-40 in a regional semifinal March 14 at Bowling Green, finished third in the City League-South Division at 10-4, behind Eastmoor Academy (13-1) and South (11-3).
While Baumgardner has committed to play for Minnesota State and Bennett has committed to Kentucky State, Hodge and forward John Figueroa were other seniors who were key contributors.
Holloway averaged nine points, seven rebounds and 2.5 assists and Davis averaged 8.5 points and 2.5 rebounds. Junior forward Ly'Heem Hilliard averaged four points and 3.5 rebounds.
"We got (to state) a couple times a few years ago and over the last few years we lost in (regional finals) in 2014, 2015 and 2016," Bates said. "We tried some different stuff this year and everything we tried just worked. This staff is phenomenal. (Assistant) coach Jesse Jackson has been coaching in the Columbus City League for 30 years and we helped him get to his first final four. ... These kids just play hard.
"I said this to the kids in the locker room: 'If you couldn't be state champions, what would you settle for?' State runner-up isn't bad."