The Thomas Worthington High School boys basketball team was unable to overcome its latest obstacle in a 'choppy' season, losing 72-60 to fifth-seeded Pickerington North in a Division I district final March 9 at Greater Columbus Convention Center.
The Cardinals, who were seeded 17th and were playing in a district final for the first time in 11 years, finished 17-8 overall one season after going 5-18.
"We had trouble getting our best pieces together all season and it was a bit choppy with injuries and obstacles," coach Sean Luzader. "We had our top six guys play maybe two or three games together this year. That's unfortunate because we truly believe we were a final-four type of team. But you can't be a state qualifier at half strength."
Thomas played North without 6-foot-9 senior post player Ben Wight, an Ohio University signee who was injured late in the Cardinals' 46-41 upset over second-seeded Hilliard Bradley in a district semifinal March 6 at Dublin Jerome. Wight suffered a concussion and broken collarbone late in the contest and did not attend the district final.
It was Wight's second game since returning from a foot injury that forced him to miss the final seven games of the regular season.
The Cardinals couldn't overcome the lack of an inside presence against North. The Panthers had a 15-3 rebounding advantage in the first 14 minutes of the game and outscored Thomas 15-7 in the second quarter to stake a 33-23 halftime lead.
"We missed some point-blank layups and allowed far too many points in the paint and second opportunities, especially early," Luzader said. "A 6-9 guy in the center makes a huge difference and changes the way that game is played.
"Let's face it. North is big and physical. (Sophomore forward and Ohio State football recruit) Jack Sawyer is 6-5 and maybe 250 and will be in the NFL one day and (6-4 junior forward Chris) Scott is physical and quick."
Sawyer scored 15 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, including an uncontested dunk in the waning seconds. Scott, Idris Lawrence and Casey George all scored 12 points for North, which improved to 22-4 and advanced to play Newark in a regional semifinal March 13 at Ohio Dominican.
Sophomore guard Jalen Sullinger led Thomas, making 11 of 15 field-goal attempts and eight of 10 free-throw attempts and finishing with 33 points. Sophomore wing player Isaac Settles scored 14 of his 15 points in the final 10 1/2 minutes as the Cardinals battled to the end.
Thomas cut its 15-point third-quarter deficit to eight points twice in the final 3:03, but got no closer. Senior guard Charlie Mamlin made two 3-pointers in the first quarter, but had few open looks the rest of the way.
Leading Bradley 37-36 with 1:27 remaining, the Cardinals broke the Jaguars' press and senior forward Jamare Razor passed to Wight, who dunked but was fouled hard with 1:20 to play and left the game.
Junior guard Zach Mansaray completed the three-point play for Wight and later made one of two free throws as the Cardinals closed the game on a 9-5 run.
Thomas went ahead 7-4 early in the second quarter and never relinquished its lead in avenging a pair of OCC-Cardinal Division losses to Bradley, which beat the Cardinals 57-32 on Dec. 27 and 47-31 on Jan. 18.
Thomas went 8-6 in the OCC-Cardinal to place fourth behind the champion Jaguars (14-0). Bradley finished 22-2 overall.
"We went into the (district semifinal) more aggressive than in the past (against Bradley) and we didn't lose that mentality," Luzader said. "We were mentally stronger and (Bradley's runs) didn't faze us this time. We stayed poised and I think our young guys grew up. (Mansaray) was ready to go and mentally tough and I think we have a lot of guys like that."
The Cardinals were without 6-6 senior forward Kyler Block and 6-4 sophomore guard Maurice Collins for most of the season. Block played nine games before a season-ending injury and Collins played just six games before health concerns ended his season.
Thomas is losing seven seniors in Block, Collins, Mamlin, Wight, guards Tanner Hunt and James Waltermyer and forward John Tchounguen. The group lost classmate Eric Clark, who drown June 11, 2017, while swimming in the Atlantic Ocean during a team trip to Fripp Island, South Carolina.
"I'm very proud of our class and this team," said Mamlin, who was named honorable mention all-league. "We had five wins last year and we sustained every blow we could take and translated that into 17 wins and a district runner-up finish. Although it hurts to lose, I just can't be prouder of what we accomplished and the way we hung in there together."
Wight was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district and Sullinger and Settles both were second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.