Grove City and Northland staged a classic Thursday in the Division I boys basketball regional semifinals at the Ohio State Fairgrounds Coliseum. The Vikings, ranked No. 1 in the state, escaped with the win despite trailing at one point by their largest margin all year. Grove City should not hang its head.
The first quarter of the Division I regional semifinal between Columbus Northland and Grove City was a spectacle, so action-packed and showcasing such stellar shooting that the game created a buzz among veteran reporters seated courtside at the Ohio State Fairgrounds Coliseum, affectionately known as “The Barn.”
Northland entered the postseason as the top-ranked team in D-1 and features a player generally regarded as the top performer in the entire state in 6-8 junior post man Jared Sullinger, who already is committed to Ohio State. However, Grove City had a 27-21 lead at the end of the frenetic first period and quickly built the lead to 12 a few minutes into the second.
It was the largest deficit the Vikings had faced all season.
However, Northland methodically cut into the lead with tightened defense and went to the power game of Sullinger in the second half to eventually log a hard-earned 70-64 win.
Northland, which advanced to face Dublin Scioto on Saturday night for a chance to make the state final four, took its first lead since the final minute of the first quarter when Dimonde Hale scored inside on the first possession of the fourth period to give the Vikings (24-1) a 54-53 edge.
The Greyhounds grabbed the lead back when 6-3 forward Ryan Cosgray made a pair of free throws and moments later GC standout Jon Smith, a 6-7 forward, blocked a shot attempt by Sullinger.
However, Big Sully decided to take over from there and showed his full array in the process with soft floaters, strong moves to the hoop, manly rebounds in traffic and deft outlet passes. He finished with 23 points, 15 rebounds and one of the sweetest wins of his amazing prep career.
Sullinger gave his team the lead for good with 6:43 to play when he grabbed an offensive rebound and delicately flipped in a shot in the lane under duress. After a rare pair of misses from the line by Cosgray, Northland point guard Trey Burke opted to throw a lob toward his bucket.
Sullinger, who weighs in the neighborhood of 245 pounds, grabbed the pass near the rim, flushed the alley-oop and rocked the stanchion below the east basket in the process. The Shaq-like moment left no doubt as to who was king of the court.
A reporter asked Sullinger if he could have tipped the whole apparatus over.
“Probably, if I really tried,” he said.
“If he’d hung on, it’s done,” added his father and coach, Satch Sullinger.
Up 58-55 and finally dialed in, Northland closed out the victory with Sullinger doing the grunt work inside. He ripped down a key rebound with about five minutes to play and then provided his team with a 60-55 lead when he threw down another dunk, this time after taking a penetrating feed from Hale. After garnering another board on the defensive end, Sullinger drew a foul with 3:46 left and made both free throws to up the advantage to seven at 62-55, putting Northland in control.
Mike Mayers finally ended the run with a short jumper with 3:21 remaining, the first field goal of the fourth quarter for Grove City (22-3). The period was quite a contrast to the opening one when the Greyhounds splashed 5 of 8 three-point attempts and appeared to be on pace for a 100-point evening, a figure they hit twice during the regular season.
They hit their first two triple of the second quarter as Cody Funk swished a bomb over the outstretched arm of Sullinger to put GC up 30-23 and Kyler Ferguson connected from the deep corner moments later to enable the Greyhounds to enjoy a 35-24 lead.
“It was them beating us down the floor and we weren’t getting back covering the corners,” Satch said. “It was like they were playing horse on us.”
GC upped the cushion to 12 with a free throw and again led by a dozen, 38-26, after a dunk by Smith.
The Vikings, though, began to chisel away thereafter and continued to pack inside on Smith. They also found a more energetic gear and banked on the idea that the Greyhounds eventually would cool off.
“Our whole philosophy, and we’ve been saying this from day one, we don’t believe that jump shots are going to beat us,” Satch said. “It’s the second shots and giving penetration. At the beginning of the game legs are really fresh and shooters are going to shoot. As they had to guard us and get up and down the floor, those jumpers disappear.”
Still, Northland had a hard time changing the momentum in the first half. The deficit still was nine until point guard Trey Burke canned a three with just under two seconds left before intermission, clipping the lead to 44-38.
Satch summed up his words at halftime succinctly.
“Bleep, bleep, bleep,” he said.
“That was it pretty much,” confirmed his son. “If you would have been just sitting out there in the hallway you probably would have heard him. He’s so loud. Everybody’s eyes were wide open, but I hear it every day. He’s yelling at me to go find the remote. So it really doesn’t matter to me.”
The message, however, was constructive eventually.
“We never hit a panic mode,” Satch said. “We just coached. We told the kids what they were doing and what they were doing well and what we needed to improve on and the kids responded. What else can a coach ask for?”
The Northland staff went back to the most tried and true areas of importance in basketball: defense and rebounding.
“The smallest guard on the floor had three putbacks in the first half, and that’s just unacceptable,” Satch said. “We had bigs that were releasing and thinking that the big fella is supposed to get all the rebounds. The big fella can’t get every dag-on rebound. We’ve got to rebound as a team. As soon as we started limiting them to one shot and got out on the quick jump shots in the corner and closing out on guys … Some guys can catch and shoot but they may not be as good as having to put the ball on the floor. So we took away their strength and forced them to do something they really didn’t want to do in the second half.”
Northland eventually pared the Grove City lead to a single point heading to the final quarter and then shot ahead behind steady play on both ends and dominance inside from Sullinger.
“We had a bunch of good looks in the first half,” Grove City coach Greg Waits said. “In the second half, obviously they picked up their defensive intensity and got out on us. We just didn’t get many good looks and they did a good job in the post squeezing Jon. We didn’t get too many runouts and easy buckets in the second half like we normally do. They did a good job of getting back.”
Smith, a senior who will head on to play collegiately at St. Louis, still managed to put together impressive numbers with 13 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. However, he dealt with foul trouble and struggled to root Sullinger out of the lane. He also drew plenty of attention from Sullinger and 6-5 power forward Javon Cornley, among others.
“We decided to keep someone fresh on Smith instead of just having Cornley have the assignment all game,” Satch said. “We started Jared on him and then rotated Cornley in and gave Jared a breather. We knew they couldn’t be as effective with Jon Smith out.”
Satch sat Jared for a lengthy stretch in the third period but rushed his son back into the game when Smith returned with 2:40 left in the period. The Northland coach also called on reserve Ricky Bennett and gave extended minutes to the two freshmen on his roster, Jordan Potts and Ke’Chaun Lewis, to keep up with the Greyhounds’ depth and quickness.
“It’s a team effort, man,” said the coach. “I’ve been telling the guys it’s like ‘Candid Camera’ – when you least expect it, you’re elected.”
Potts provided an extra ball handler and perimeter defender, which allowed Burke to come off the ball and make plays. Burke, a well-regarded sophomore, had 16 points and Potts finished with 11, although their performances were not perfect by any means.
“Yeah, they’re young guards, aren’t they?” Satch said. “They’re going to be good but, boy, they still make some freshman mistakes. But we advance. And I say that with a lot of love simply because the only way you get experience is by being inexperienced in the situation. So we’re growing up together.”
Jared figures he has grown up enough and believes it is time that he lead his team to a state title. Northland faces Scioto at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and a win would pit the school against the winner of the Cleveland regional at 5:15 p.m. on March 27 in a state semifinal at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
“I remember my freshman year,” Jared said, “it was the same day and we lost our game and Coach Vic (Dandridge) told me, he said, ‘If we get this far, there’s no point in losing.’ I just took that to heart in the fourth quarter. I felt like I had to do it.
“It may have looked like a one-man show, but I can’t do it without the four other people on the floor or my team. It takes five people to run offense and it takes five people to play defense, and without the team and without our poise and confidence, I don’t think we would have come out with the ‘W.’ ”