COLUMBUS — The Newark boys basketball team has relied on impressive second-half runs to dispose of its last three teams en route to the Division I state semifinals.
On Friday, the Wildcats got started a little sooner.
After slow starts in tournament wins against Zanesville, Trotwood-Madison and Westerville South, Newark jumped out quickly against Toledo Whitmer.
The Wildcats then stayed calm through Whitmer’s late rally, holding off the Panthers and winning convincingly, 63-44 in front of 13,221 at Value City Arena.
“We had our run and we knew they were going to make one. We just had to weather the storm and keep our composure through it all,” senior Greg Avery said.
Newark (23-4) had runs of 8-1 and 13-3 to go ahead 36-22 at halftime and another spurt, this time a 7-0 burst, put Newark up 43-22.
Whitmer (20-6) closed to nine early in the fourth, but Newark’s poise, something that’s become a trademark during its 13-game winning streak, wouldn’t let the lead dissipate any further.
Now, Newark will play in tonight’s Division I state final at 8:30 p.m. against Lakewood St. Edwards (22-4), which beat No. 4 Cincinnati Xavier 68-59.
Newark will be looking for its fourth state title and first since 1943. The state final berth is the first since 1953.
“It’s really nice. I’ve been wanting to win a state (title) for a long time,” junior Cody Dennison said. “I remember coming here and watching other people win and we want to do that.”
Dennison had a huge game, finishing with a season-high 22 points. He also shut down Whitmer’s standout Ryne Smith, a Purdue signee. Smith was just 4-of-12 for 12 points, and he also turned it over eight times in the face of strong pressure.
But the Wildcats’ defense was the deciding factor on Friday.
Whitmer was held to its fourth-lowest point total of the season, shooting just 33 percent for the game.
Newark’s 6-foot-9 junior Dane Kopp controlled the inside as well, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking seven shots and altering several more.
“They played great defense,” Ryne Smith said. “I have a lot of respect for their defense.”
Smith hit a deep 3-pointer early in the game, but didn’t get many open looks against Newark’s strong defense.
“You have to rub it off because he is a good player,” Dennison said. “If I was to complain about it and not do a good job the next play, and he scores again, he will get on a roll and make everything he shoots.”
The quick start also forced Whitmer out of its game. Newark jumped out 8-1 on six Rahlin Watson points and a dunk from Greg Avery, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds.
The uphill climb continued for the Panthers, after they pulled to 23-19 in the second. Avery had eight points and Dennison had five in Newark’s 13-3 run to give it a 36-22 halftime lead. Newark shot 56 percent in a sterling first half.
“When we were able to get that early lead, they kind of had to play the way we wanted to play,” Newark coach Jeff Quackenbush said.
Avery capped off the quick start to the third with a dunk off Dennison’s pass off the backboard.
That gave Newark a 43-22 lead, but Whitmer went on a 16-4 run to pull to 47-38 seconds into the fourth.
The Panthers had three straight possessions to close the gap further, but it ended up going scoreless for nearly four minutes at a crucial time.
“Their defense was just tremendous,” Whitmer’s Antwan Willis said. “It made it difficult for us.”
Newark pushed the lead to 52-38 on a 3-point play from Dennison, and Whitmer never got closer than 10 in the final four minutes.
“Our kids have played good defense all year,” Quackenbush said. “It’s really what’s gotten us to this point.”
Watson added 13 points for Newark.
Willis finished with 16 points, but was just 5-of-16 from the field. Most of that had to do with Kopp, who also helped Newark to a 37-30 rebounding advantage.
“I did a good job of staying on my feet and I gave it all I had,” Kopp said. “I was amped up.”