The Columbus State men’s basketball team reached the junior college national tournament for the third time in five seasons, and once again defense was the Cougars’ trademark.

Coach Ed Thompson’s emphasis on defense helped Columbus State finish 20-8 overall, his best record in six seasons leading the program. The Cougars averaged 91.6 points, scoring 90 or more in 15 games, and allowed an average of 79.6.

“Coach really stresses defense,” said sophomore guard Corey Baker, one of eight players on the roster from the ThisWeek coverage area. “We had (10) games when we scored more than 100 points. We were going to score, but coach’s big thing was to stop the other team.”

Baker began his high school career at Groveport but finished at Pickerington North. The Cougars’ roster this winter also included sophomores Danny Corbett (guard, Briggs) and Jeremiah Green (forward, Columbus South) and freshmen Elijah Bishop (forward, Beechcroft), Chaz Dixon (guard/forward, Westerville Central), N’Keeley Elmore (guard, Northland), GiCobi Massey (guard, Eastmoor Academy) and Shaylin Waugh (guard, Harvest Prep).

Thompson said the talent in central Ohio has helped fuel the program’s success.

“There is enough talent in central Ohio that it’s not only me, but everyone in our conference has tried to tap into the plethora of talent,” said Thompson, whose team is a member of the Ohio Community College Athletic Conference. “I have been watching most of these kids since they were young and I know how well they can play.”

The Cougars went 1-1 in the National Junior College Athletic Association tournament held March 11-13 in Rochester, Minnesota. They lost to Herkimer College, which is in New York, 61-58 on March 11, limiting them to only one other game in the tournament. They then defeated Rhode Island Community College 109-93 in the consolation bracket March 12.

“When you lose your first game, you only get one more game, so we finished 10th in the nation,” Thompson said. “We had a young team and we didn’t figure to make it this far, but the kids really played well as the season went along.”

The 6-foot-7 Bishop averaged team highs of 16.8 points and 8.5 rebounds while also averaging 2.0 assists and 1.4 steals. He was joined in the starting lineup by Baker, Elmore, Green and Shawn Hawkins, a sophomore forward from Cincinnati Hughes.

“I think it was a good season,” Bishop said. “We came together as team throughout the season.

“We all just wanted to win and make it to the national tournament. … We’re all good players and good players know how to play basketball. When you have good players, you’ll play well.”

Baker averaged 11.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.4 steals.

“It was a great season,” he said. “We had a bunch of ups and downs, but going to nationals was a great experience. A lot of people don’t get to go there, so it was good to get there.

“The coaches had been there before (in 2016 and 2018), so we listened to what they said. They knew how to take us there.”

Green played inside despite being 6-2. He averaged 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds and played the final month of the season with a high-ankle sprain.

“I’m down in the trenches,” he said. “I’m a physical player, and I can jump high. I like to be wherever I’m needed.

“I love defense. I know defense tunes us up and we’re able to get steals and get (alley-)oops for dunks. Coach told us Columbus State was known for defense. We’re gritty, we grind and we go for loose balls.”

Elmore, who shared point-guard duties with Baker, averaged 11.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 steals and a team-high 3.6 assists.

“We started slow, but we knew we had good talent coming in and we were in for a treat,” Elmore said. “As the season went on, we became more comfortable with each other and things started to click more. One of our goals was to make the nationals, and we did that.”

The Cougars started 3-3 before winning five games in a row and nine of 11. They went 7-2 in February, defeating Rock Valley College, which is in Illinois, 83-75 on Feb. 29 to win the Great Lakes District championship and advance to the national tournament. Bishop had 30 points and 14 rebounds against Rock Valley.

Against Rhode Island, Bishop had 26 points, 17 rebounds, six assists and three steals and Baker had 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. It was Baker’s final game with Columbus State, as players at community colleges have only two years of eligibility.

“I needed to be a leader for us this year,” Baker said. “Being one of the (six) sophomores, I wanted to help the guys do well and get ready for next year.”

Thompson said the team’s unselfish play was integral to its success.

“We (had five) guys averaging between nine and 16 points per game,” he said. “Bishop could average 20 points per game, but would we be as good of a team? Probably not. We had nice balance.

“Sometimes you have nights off shooting, so you have to be able to play defense. Look at Jeremiah Green, who is one of the better guys in the post. He takes a lot of charges and is great on defense. They realize that if they play defense, they will play ‘X’ amount of minutes.”

Columbus State went 9-2 in the OCCAC to tie Lakeland Community College, which is in Kirtland, for the title. Lakeland went 10-2, but the Cougars swept the Lakers, winning 84-75 on Nov. 9 and 109-104 on Jan. 25 to earn a share of the title, Thompson said. The Cougars’ conference game Jan. 18 against Terra State, which is in Fremont, was canceled because of bad weather.

Bishop and Elmore are expected to lead Columbus State next season as it seeks its first national championship. Recruiting this spring, however, has been different for Thompson because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“Right now, I’m trying to do things with email and social media,” he said. “(Columbus State) has been closed, so you can’t bring anyone in to look at them. You want to be as safe as possible. We’re trying to find creative ways to recruit.”