COLUMBUS – The Columbus Northland boys basketball team may be the best, top to bottom, in the entire state. The Vikings also could be blessed with the best 1-2 punch at the prep level within Ohio borders.
That will play itself out in the upcoming postseason. In what served as the final tuneup until then, Northland faced Eastmoor Academy in the City League championship Saturday afternoon at Columbus Mifflin.
With senior guard Devon Moore at the controls and sophomore big man Jared Sullinger ruling the paint, the Vikings made short work of the mighty Warriors, dominating them to the tune of 57-31 before a packed-in, standing-room-only crowd.
Just a few games ago, Northland, 19-0 overall and 14-0 against City League competition, dusted off Linden McKinley by holding the Panthers to a mere 16 points.
“To hold Eastmoor, which is ranked eighth in the state, to 31 points, that’s a pretty awesome defensive stand,” Northland coach Satch Sullinger said afterward. “And what makes our defense so good is our ability to rebound the basketball. We give teams, basically, one and one, and that really helps us with our defense, not giving up second and third shots.”
Eastmoor Academy (17-2, 14-1), which had handled every challenge in league play so far, was no match for Northland, which had a height advantage at every position yet just as much quickness if not more.
Raymond Woods, a 6-3 widebody who mans the pivot for the Warriors, couldn’t bull his way past the 6-8 Sullinger inside. Eastmoor senior guard Antonio Bumpus, a first-team All-City performer this season, was unable to find lanes to the basket and had to settle for several off-balance jumpers with 6-5 wing James Weatherspoon and others hounding him.
Meanwhile, the multitalented Sullinger, a sophomore who already has accepted a scholarship offer from Ohio State, led Northland with 16 points and 17 rebounds. He followed up misses inside and also grabbed a majority of the misfires on the defensive end and turned several of them into fast breaks with effective outlet passes.
Moore, a 6-4 senior, took it from there. He made correct decisions in the open court and finished with 12 points and eight assists, accounting for virtually half of Northland’s points.
With Moore on top of his game and Sullinger a difference maker inside, the Vikings cruised to their second straight City League championship and undefeated regular season.
“It feels a lot different because I’m a senior this year,” Moore said. “It’s kind of sad more than happy. It feels real good, though. Now we’ve got to keep working hard and keep getting better every day.”
Northland also got key contributions from the usual support players – 6-5 junior forward Javon Cornley, 5-10 senior guard Ian Nixson and 5-8 senior guard Quintin Harris – but the moment belonged to Moore.
“Devon is playing great,” Jared Sullinger said. “He’s got Ohio State looking in on him again. My dad’s phone has been blowing up all through the night about Devon. He’s stepping up to the plate and being mature and he’s just handling his business.
“I’ve known Devon ever since I was younger. In elementary school, we went to the same school, in middle school we went to the same school and now I’m playing with him in high school. He’s one of the best. He’s a big key to why we’re so successful. Devon makes big plays, and sometimes he makes them when it looks like there’s not going to be a play.”
His father agreed.
“It’s all about the W’s, and that’s what makes them really special,” the coach said. “And Devon Moore is a perfect example of that. He can score seven (points) and as long as we win, he’s happy. And that’s a special kid that can do that.”
Northland imposed its will early, opening up a 15-6 lead at the end of the first quarter. The lead grew to 17-6 when Weatherspoon rocked the gym with an alley-oop slam off a perfect feed from Moore. A brief moment of suspense followed when Eastmoor scored consecutive baskets to cut the deficit to 17-10.
But the Vikings put a firm grasp on matters from there, posting an impressive 18-6 run and enjoying a 35-16 lead minutes into the second half.
Sullinger started the spree by scoring off a lob inside from Nixson, rejecting a shot attempt on the other end and catching an airball by Moore for another easy lay-in.
Other second-quarter highlights included an acrobatic, hanging drive by Moore and another slam by Weatherspoon off a high-post feed from Sullinger. A springy-legged sophomore, Weatherspoon was fouled on the play and added the free throw for a 26-14 lead. Northland closed out the first half with another hoop, a pullup by promising freshman guard Trey Burke.
Cornley tallied the first two field goals of the third quarter, and after a pair of free throws by Bumpus Nixson nailed a three to produce the 35-16 score.
Playing before a spirited crowd that included former Ohio State athletes Mel Nowell, Troy Taylor, Antonio Watson and Dionte Johnson, Northland cruised in the second half. Still, the Vikings players were in a celebratory mood afterward.
“We’ll never take a championship for granted – the City League, the district,” Jared Sullinger said. “All our guys take it one game at a time. It’s always an important step when you’re with these guys. They’re like my brothers.”
Eastmoor showed a respectable amount of fight, but the Warriors simply could not handle Sullinger and company in the paint.
“We just play our game and they couldn’t keep us out of the inside,” Jared said. “My dad always talks about feeling out the flavor of the game, so we felt out the flavor and figured out was good and not so good.”
“It’s great, because you’ve got somebody who is unstoppable both inside and out,” Moore added. “Eastmoor is a great team but they lost a lot of height this year so I think we did have an advantage going into this game.”
“How many people can match up with our inside and our guard play at the same time?” queried Satch. “I mean, we’ve got a complete basketball team here, and it’s going to take a complete basketball team to disrupt us.”
That team could be in Northland’s regional bracket. The Vikings, 24-1 last season, begin their quest for the Division I state title by facing Lancaster on Feb. 13. A win there would move them on to face Pataskala Watkins Memorial at Jonathan Alder High School on Feb. 16.
Northland would be heavily favored to advance to the district title game but could face Hilliard Davidson March 1 at Fairgrounds Coliseum. The March 8 regional championship there very well could feature Northland, the No. 2-ranked team in Division I, against defending state champion Cincinnati Moeller, the state’s No. 1 team and one that just posted an undefeated run in its conference.
“That’s just the way it is,” Satch Sullinger said of the hurdles ahead. “You check out past state champions. How many No. 1-ranked teams actually won the state championship? It’s not many. So it doesn’t bother us. In order to be the best you’ve got to play the best.”
Coach Sullinger, though, knows the road ahead could be fraught with unpredictable peril. When asked what it’s going to take from here for the Vikings to make it to Value City Arena for the Division I state tourney, he said, “Injuries and the luck of the draw. For us to win the state championship at this point, it’s got to be a favorable matchup. It’s a lot of things that you have no control over. A lot of teams that are supposed to win will lose. So it’s that, it’s the matchups, it’s injuries, all kinds of things.”
Northland already is dealing with several nagging injuries and played Saturday without key reserve Dimond Hale, a 6-4 junior who recently rolled his ankle and could be out for 10 days or longer.
“Dimond is really the glue that keeps us together coming off the bench, but the rest of the guys picked up the pace tonight,” Satch said. “So it’s a team concept. The kids believe in each other. And there’s one word that they believe in, and it’s accountability. We’re all held accountable for what we’re supposed to do, and I think that’s the main ingredient right there.”
His son echoed him, providing a quick answer to what he believes is key to the postseason ahead.
“Stay healthy,” Jared said. “That’s all. Everybody is hurt right now. But everybody is tuned in right now, too. Like our slogan says, one heartbeat.”