COLUMBUS, Ohio – State championship glory is familiar territory for three of the four Division I teams in the 86th Annual Boys State Basketball Tournament.
Lakewood St. Edward, Cincinnati St. Xavier and Newark have all hoisted state championship trophies combining for five titles.
Toledo Whitmer has made the trip to Columbus before but has never advanced past the semifinal round.
The following is a look at the Division I boys basketball state tournament:
Last season, Lakewood St. Edward was a heavy favorite to win the state championship but the Eagles were ousted in the state semifinals by eventual state champion Cincinnati Moeller 67-60 and finished 26-1.
With the loss of five seniors, the transfer of Pe’Shon Howard to Oak Hill (Va.) Academy and knee injuries to Michigan State recruit Delvon Roe and Alex Sterba in the season-opener, few expected St. Edward (21-4) to be back in Columbus this year.
“We’re happy to be back,” said head coach Eric Flannery. “We feel very fortunate with all the things that have gone on with our team this year. Our kids have really fought back in our last three games from behind to come out with wins and this time of year is all about survival and just getting through games to see another day.
“Our kids have really bought into that and they believe they can overcome just about anything right now with the things we have been through throughout the course of the year.”
Of course, a bit on controversy surrounded St. Edward’s 77-75 overtime regional final win over Warren G. Harding.
Down 17 points, the Eagles battled back and Frankie Dobbs hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime but it has been highly disputed whether or not he got the shot off in time.
“People were complaining that the shot was late,” said Flannery. “I watched the film at least 50 times just see what happened and it was pretty much instantaneous. We slowed it down and when you hear the horn and (Dobbs) releases it, it was at the same time.
“The main thing I looked at was where the three officials were. They all had the same reaction – their hands were up and nobody hesitated. So, there is no controversy as far as that goes. There is no controversy as far we’re concerned. He got it off and we’re still playing.”
With the injuries to Roe and Sterba and some tight games in the tournament, not many pictured St. Edward back in the state tournament – except maybe the Eagles themselves.
“Being there last year, the focus has been towards getting back there,” said Flannery. “So, I think with those factors you expect it to some degree but how we got here has put us with a different view on things.
“This year, it’s a different story because I think we are coming in a little bit under the radar. “People didn’t expect us to be here. I hate to say it because I didn’t mind coming in last year being one of the favorites but it’s definitely nice to come in a little bit more relaxed and feeling like people don’t expect us to be here.”
St. Edward starts five seniors led by Indiana recruit Tom Pritchard netting 15.9 points per game in the post. Pritchard was a first team All-Ohio selection. Guard Mike Hartnett is the second leading scorer with 9.5 ppg and Dobbs adds 8.5 ppg.
The Eagles will attempt to continue its tournament run Friday, March 14 at 5:15 p.m. against 2007 state runner-up St. Xavier. The Bombers fell to Moeller 43-40 in the state championship game last year.
St. Xavier (23-2) is making its sixth Final Four appearance having won the 2000 championship and finishing runners-up last season, 2005, and 1965.
“It’s been a real fun ride. We were there last year and our guys had a disappointing ending and we’ve really been focused this year,” head coach Scott Martin said. “They accomplished their goal this year and that is to get back to the state Final Four.
“I think the instant the horn went off last year in the state finals I think our guys had a goal of what they wanted to do this year. Amazingly enough they were able to accomplish it and get back to the Final Four.”
He added, “Last year’s team didn’t know they could get to the Final Four and hoped they could get there. This year, the team knew they could get there. That was the difference. These guys have been pretty focused and serious about this year. We’re just trying to get ready for St. Ed’s”
No. 4 ranked St. Xavier also starts five seniors with All-Ohio Special Mention Walt Gibler leading the way with 16.5 ppg in the post. Guard Brad Loesing adds 13.3 points per contest.
“Those two guys have just been fantastic for us throughout this tournament, Martin said. “Their intensity on the floor every second displays the leadership they give us. I think when our guys see when those guys work so hard and are so serious with what they are trying to get done everybody just follows along.
“I think on the offensive end what we’re doing well is sharing the basketball,” Martin said. “We’re making that extra pass and we’re finding the guy that’s got the best shot. Obviously, Walt and Brad are our leading scorers but I think those guys are distributing the basketball and the other guys are hitting their shots.”
St. Xavier isn’t afraid to go to its bench, either, to compliment its talented starting line up.
“Our bench in the tournament has just been fantastic and scored a lot of points. When you have that ability to bring guys off the bench and score, it gives you another dimension to compete with,” said Martin.
“We’ve played 10 or 11 guys in our games throughout the year and we have a lot of depth. We’re able to get a lot of guys in a wear teams down a bit but it appears St. Ed’s has that same ability.”
Both teams endured a rigorous schedule in the regular season and knocked off top competition in the tournament.
“I think any team that comes out of the (Greater Catholic League) they’re going to be prepared,” Flannery said of St. Xavier. “They have the size, they have the experience and they’re just very well-coached. When they’ve been there before, they have an idea of what it takes to get there.
“I think that we just have to make sure we are ready for that kind of punch in the mouth Moeller gave us last year. I think we have to come in with that same type of expectation out of St. X. I think it is going to be the same type of game we had last year.”
Said Martin, “We saw St. Ed’s in the Final Four last year and we know they are an excellent basketball team and have some great players. It appears on film and in play like a GCL South basketball team, so we know we’ve got our hands full. We know how difficult our league is and they play a lot like the teams in our league.”
On the other side of the bracket, Newark (22-4) is in the Final Four for the first time since 1981 when Wildscats bowed out in the Class A state semifinals losing to Dayton Roth 83-81.
Newark won state titles in 1936, 1938 and 1943.
“The kids are obviously excited this week and the coaching staff is excited and busy and it’s just a whole lot of fun,” headcoach Jeff Quackenbush said.
The Wildcats finished last season 24-2 losing to Moeller in the regional finals.
This year, Newark didn’t even win the Ohio Capital Conference finishing second to Hilliard Darby. The Wildcats lost to Darby and Quackenbush points that fourth loss of the season as the turning point in the season.
“Our kids just really turned it around from that point,” he said. “We’ve talked about being unselfish and trusting each other. It took us a little while to get to that point but I believe we’re there now.”
Third team All-Ohio selection Greg Avery leads Newark with 19 ppg at the wing.
Guards Cody Dennison and Rahlin Watson also average double figures in scoring with 10 and 11 ppg, respectively.
“Offensively we try to get the ball up and down the floor as much as we can,” said Quackenbush. “And if we can get good shots, we’ll take them, if not, we’ll be patient. We’ll take what we can get.”
Newark is set to face Toledo Whitmer (20-5) Friday, March 15 at 8:30 p.m. in the semifinal tilt.
Guard Ryne Smith was a second team All-Ohio selection with 18 ppg and 6-3 center Antwan Wills adds13.4 ppg.
“(Whitmer is ) very well-coached,” said Quackenbush. “(Smith) really can shoot and there is a reason he is going to Purdue. He is a really smart basketball player
“The other kids on their team know their roles. They know their roles and don’t turn it over and they get it to the guys the can score. It’s definitely a tough match up for us.”
St. Xavier over St. Edward
Toledo Whitmer over Newark
St. Xavier over Toledo Whitmer