COLUMBUS – No school in Ohio history has had a longer wait between boys basketball state tournament appearances than Chillicothe. Cavalier faithful will probably say the 78-year drought was well worth it.
Facing the state’s No. 1 ranked team in undefeated Poland Seminary, Chillicothe handed the Bulldogs a convincing 78-70 loss in front of 12,740 at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center in a Division II state semifinal Thursday. Wauseon held the previous record for years between state tournaments at 68.
The victory propelled the No. 2 ranked Cavs into Saturday’s state final where they face No. 4 Toledo Libbey at 10:45 p.m.
“I don’t want to say it was difficult, but a team like that was trying to press the tempo and get us to do stuff we are not supposed to do,” Chillicothe senior Anthony Hitchens said. “When they came out and pressured we didn’t want to become spasmatic and start committing turnovers. When we played the game like we know how we shut them down.”
Defense was the overriding factor.
Chillicothe clamped down on the potent Poland offense and held the Bulldogs, who were averaging a numbing 88.8 points per game, to their second lowest output of the season. Poland’s previous low was 67 points against Perry in the regional semifinals. Only four times in 26 games did the Bulldogs register less than 80.
Poland had just 40 points through three quarters.
“We accomplished what we set out to do – at least we did a decent job for 28 minutes,” Chillicothe head coach Gary Kellough said. “We were trying to force Poland into having to shoot from around the perimeter with a lot of pressure and make it tough for them to get out (and go). The guys did a good job of sitting down today. We didn’t want to extend our defense and we didn’t have to.”
“Give credit to (their defense),” Poland coach Ken Grisdale said. “One of the tings they did better than anyone we’ve seen all year is close out on our shooters. They tried to stay tight and we like to penetrate. They recovered as quick as any team we’ve seen.”
Poland witnessed another first Thursday as well – Hitchens mastery against its pressure.
An Akron recruit and Chillicothe’s career scoring leader, Hitchens played like a finalist for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball, which he was. The 5-9 point guard scored 24 points and had six rebounds and three assists. He also had five turnovers, but they weren’t crucial – unlike the rest of his game.
“No,” said Grisdale when asked if Poland had seen a guard do what Hitchens did against Poland’s press. “He was able to go by it. Our plan was to approach him slowly and try to pinch him, but if we did that he threw over us. If we came at him too fast he split us or went around us. That’s Division I talent.”
Poland players agreed.
“He just stepped up,” Bulldogs senior David White said. “Every time we made a run he came down and hit a big shot. Every single time. He’s a player.”
Added Poland standout Ben Umbel: “His 10-15 foot pull-up killed us. We’d get a hand in his face every time and that must be his shot because he hit it every time. That was a back-breaker. Usually when we get teams going they miss and we get going the other way. He’s definitely the real deal like coach said.”
Hitchens soaked in the stage.
“I like when the lights are on because that’s when you show everyone what you’re made of,” Hitchens said.
Chillicothe was powered by the post game of 6-7 senior Ray Chambers as well. Chambers ended with 31 points and 17 rebounds, including 18 and 12, respectively, in the first half. Chambers and Hitchens combined shot 24-of-36 from the floor. Junior Seth Dawes chipped in 14 points, hitting 10-of-11 free throws.
“We’re used to (Hitchens and Chambers) performing like this,” Kellough said. “They’ve been consistent like this in big games all year. Sometimes I have to get after them in games people say we should win by 25 points because they kind of go through the motions, but buddy when big games are on the line these guys play.”
Umbel put together a solid game too.
The Poland senior strung together the contest’s most impressive state line with 28 points, eight rebounds, six steals and five assists. He also had six turnovers.
“Ben is a warrior,” Grisdale said. “He’s a thief and a warrior.”
Umbel, who unofficially set the single season state record with 175 steals this winter, was the focal point of Chillicothe’s game plan.
“We knew we weren’t going to shut (Umbel) down,” Kellough said. “We just wanted to keep him out of the lane because he’s a tough player. We did not want the penetration and kick outs.”
Despite a sluggish first quarter that saw it shoot 5-of-14 from the floor and commit eight turnovers, Chillicothe still led 12-11 after eight minutes. The Bulldogs last lead was 11-10 with 1:15 to go in the first quarter. Hitchens first basket of the game gave the Cavs the lead for good.
“Like I’ve been saying all year, if I don’t win state I’m a failure,” Hitchens said.
Hitchens and the Cavs get that opportunity now against Libbey, which features Mr. Basketball in Ohio State recruit William Buford.
The teams have history. Libbey beat Chillicothe by 15 points at the Schott in a regular season game last year.
“Our kids have been looking forward to this game for 364 days,” Kellough said. “We’re going to be ready to play. They have a great team and we know what we have to do to be competitive in that game.”
Poland wraps the season 25-1 after advancing to its second straigt state tournament.
“It’s a tough one to do what we did all year and come back here and not accomplish what we had planned,” Grisdale said. “They are a very nice basketball team and I think you could ask (White and Umbel) and they would agree – we haven’t seen anything like Hitchens all year. He’s the real deal.”
With its loss, Poland dropped to 0-4 in state semifinals. The Bulldogs also lost in the semis in 1972 (to Lexington), 2002 (to Lebron James-led Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary) and last season (to Upper Sandusky).
Thursday also wasn’t a good day to be undefeated. In the first semifinal, unbeaten St. Paris Graham fell to Libbey.
Chillicothe’s victory is its third over a No. 1 team in the last calendar year. Last season the Cavs knocked No. 1 Greenfield McClain out of the tournament in the district and this season beat then-No. 1 Dayton Dunbar in an event at Wellston.
In the third quarter Poland made a run, scoring nine straight points to claw within 44-38 with 2:19 left in the period. Kellough called a timeout to stop the momentum.
“Typically in a lot of games you have kids that you want shooting the basketball and at times you have kids you don’t want shooting the basketball,” Kellough said. “That timeout was real simple. I looked at three or four of the kids and said you’ve had an opportunity to score in the last three-four minutes and Poland’s made a comeback. Now lets get the ball to No. 24 (Hitchens) and let him create and score and that’s what we did. You have to forget about egos sometimes and say lets do what we do best and get it to the guy who does it the best.”
Hitchens emerged from the timeout and scored the Cavs final seven points of the period for a 51-40 lead heading into the fourth.
Chambers performance was almost record-breaking. His 17 rebounds were two shy of the D-II semifinal record set by Samarie Walker of Whitehall-Yearling against St. Marys Memorial in 1993. His 31 points were also just three shy of the D-II semi record.
“There were just open looks for me,” Chambers said. “I was working hard to get to a spot and made some big plays.”
Added Kellough: “We thought they’d have trouble handling us in the post.”