Despite his team facing a 16-point deficit in the first half and playing without one of its top players, first-year Westerville South girls basketball coach Jermaine Guice knew his squad eventually would make a run in its Division I district final Feb. 29.
Trailing 35-21 at halftime, the Wildcats rallied to force overtime before eventually falling 61-57 to ninth-seeded Reynoldsburg at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.
The third-seeded Wildcats, who were playing in their fourth consecutive district final, finished 20-5 overall.
"I knew we had fight in us. I knew it wasn't over," Guice said. "Part of the battle is getting the girls to believe that and they did. They bought in to what we were doing and they fought back."
Reynoldsburg has won district titles in nine of the last 11 seasons.
South played its final six games without senior guard Anyssa Jones, an Ohio State recruit who suffered a high left ankle sprain during practice Feb. 3. Jones was second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.4 points, and was named first-team all-OCC-Buckeye Division and second-team all-district.
Faced with the halftime deficit, the Wildcats got a big boost from junior center Aja Austin, who also was in foul trouble for most of the game. She scored 18 of her game-high 20 points in the second half and overtime, and her basket inside forced overtime tied at 53.
The Raiders made six free throws in overtime to secure the win.
"I got into foul trouble in the first half, but (the coaches) told me it wasn't over, so I had to keep my head in the game," Austin said.
Senior forward Gabby Hutcherson, also an Ohio State recruit, added 14 points.
Jones scored 22 points in the Wildcats' 64-59 win over Reynoldsburg on Jan. 21.
Hutcherson averaged a team-high 14.4 points and was named OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year and first-team all-district.
"It's been such a great ride, such a great experience," Hutcherson said of her prep career.
Austin averaged 12.1 points and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. She's embracing being next season's top expected returnee.
"I'm not afraid of it," Austin said. "I think we're going to be even better next year than we were this year."
Senior guard Mira Randolph was honorable mention all-league.
South won its third consecutive OCC-Buckeye title at 9-1, but saw its 29-game league winning streak end with a 45-43 loss at Westerville North on Feb. 7.
"There's definitely going to be some tears shed losing those five seniors," said Guice, who was league Coach of the Year. "They were a cohesive group and very talented. They're going to be hard to replace, but I hope that all of them have success after this."
Freshmen Nelia Guice (forward), Leila Jones (guard) and Tamara Ortiz (guard) played key roles in the comeback against Reynoldsburg and will be asked to take on larger roles next season.
"To be on this type of stage as a freshman, as a young player, it's huge," coach Guice said. "Hopefully they learn a lot from it and they remember how it feels."
Others eligible to return are juniors Cyress Alexander (guard), Iman Benlemlih (guard), Morgan Pillow (forward) and Megan Rispress (forward) and sophomore Madison O'Neill (guard).
Boys team wins home finale
Playing in its home gymnasium for the final time, the 11th-seeded boys basketball team defeated 26th-seeded Briggs 72-48 in a Division I district tournament second-round game Feb. 28.
Jaiden Guice made five 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 30 points to lead the Wildcats, who will play in a new gymnasium next season. Drey Carter and Tabari Howard added 13 points apiece.
South was 16-8 before playing second-seeded Hilliard Bradley in a district semifinal March 4. The winner plays eighth-seeded Newark or 10th-seeded Dublin Coffman in a district final Saturday, March 7, at Ohio Dominican.
The Wildcats lost to Newark 62-57 in overtime Dec. 3 and defeated Coffman 64-54 on Dec. 23.
The district champion plays Gahanna, Reynoldsburg, Walnut Ridge or Whitehall in a regional semifinal Wednesday, March 11, at Ohio Dominican.
South opened the district tournament with a 73-50 win over 30th-seeded Groveport on Feb. 22. Howard scored 20 points, Peter Pedrozo had 15, Carter scored 12 and Guice added 11.