As they prepared to play Thornville Sheridan in a Division II state semifinal March 21 at Ohio State, the players and coaches from the Columbus South High School boys basketball team could have gone to a hotel beforehand but instead hung out at coach Ramon Spears’ house.

According to Spears, it was one of many examples of the family atmosphere that he believes helped the program reach new heights this season.

The Bulldogs went on to beat Sheridan 77-55  before losing to Trotwood-Madison 77-73 in the state final March 23 at Ohio State to finish 28-2.

“The main thing is that I love these guys and I treat them like my own,” Spears said. “By spending that much time with them, being engaged in their lives, they know only 25 percent of this is about basketball. It’s more about building relationships with them, putting their pride aside for a bigger cause, and they also see this with my coaching staff. They see me take a back seat, too, and that exemplifies our team, from the coaching staff down to the last player on the bench.”

For much of the state final, it looked as though the togetherness the Bulldogs have tried to infuse into their program was going to lead them to their first title since 1965, as they led for most of the first three quarters.

South led 68-60 with 5 minutes, 34 seconds remaining before Trotwood-Madison put together its best stretch of the game.

The Rams, who were state semifinalists each of the past two seasons, got back to within 68-66 with 4:33 left and took a 75-73 lead with 2:17 remaining. A missed 3-pointer by senior guard Tre’ohn Watkins with 15.2 seconds left ended South’s hopes.

“We fought and played hard, but we had some lapses (defensively) at getting back,” said Spears, whose team lost to Trotwood-Madison 79-60 in a regional semifinal last season. “I don’t know how many points we gave up in the paint, but you can’t give up that many points in the paint.

“We were up eight in the fourth quarter and just had some lapses on defense and missed some free throws. The main thing was we didn’t get back in our transition defense and didn’t get back to stopping penetration. Maybe their last 20 points were in-the-paint shots.”

Junior guard Trevell Adams and junior center Samual Barton each had 16 points, junior forward Marcus Johnson scored 14 and senior forward Alvin Byrd added 13 for the Bulldogs, who were outrebounded 44-35.

Watkins, a first-team all-district honoree who averaged 13.5 points, sat most of the first half after picking up his third foul and finished with eight points.

Junior guard Ta’Quan Simington, who averaged 13 points, was on the bench for most of the second half with foul trouble and fouled out with 2:17 remaining. He was held to six points.

Amari Davis, who entered the game averaging more than 30 points, had 24 points and six rebounds to lead Trotwood-Madison, which finished 28-2.

In the state semifinal, South made 32 of 56 shots from the floor as Byrd (18), Simington (16), Adams (13), Watkins (12) and Johnson (10) all scored in double figures.

The Bulldogs reached the state tournament for the seventh time overall but first since 1986 by beating Norwalk (61-54 on March 14) and Lima Shawnee (64-47 on March 16) at the regional tournament at Bowling Green. Adams had 22 points against Norwalk and 15 against Shawnee.

“It was a little nervous at first (being in the state tournament), but once the game got going, it was time to play,” Adams said. “It’s a great experience. I never thought I’d be in this type of situation.”

South earned its third district championship in five seasons when it beat Watterson 50-44 in a district final March 9 at Ohio Dominican.

The Bulldogs’ only other loss came against Walnut Ridge, 56-46 on Jan. 18, but they won their final six City League-South Division games and then beat Northland 68-51 in the City championship game Feb. 19.

Watkins and Byrd, who averaged 8.5 points, were joined in the senior class by backup guard Kaseim Morris-Pace.

Two others who saw action in the state final, junior guard Chaz Thomas and sophomore post player Marquise Haw-thorne, also are eligible to return.

“They’ve bought into the program,” said Spears, who completed his ninth season as coach and earned his 150th career victory when South beat Sheridan. “I don’t think it’s going to be a hard task to get these guys back together fighting for a common goal, because they see when you play together that you can reach higher goals than when you play as an individual.”