Every once in a while, a small rural team splashes onto the scene, causing Beatlemania-like hysteria – gaining enormous popularity and unbridled momentum, along the way. Twenty-seven years ago, it was Jackson Center who defeated heavily-favored Columbus Wehrle in a Class A state semi-final matchup. Guess who’s back…
Every once in a long while, a small deeply-rooted rural team splashes onto the scene, causing Beatlemania-like hysteria, gaining enormous popularity and unbridled momentum, along the way. Twenty-seven years ago, it was Jackson Center defeating heavily-favored Columbus Wehrle in a Class A state semi-final matchup.
Thursday’s hard day’s morning, the Fab Five from Jackson Center gripped the imagination of 9,362 spectators by duplicating the feat of their ancestors, defeating Columbus Africentric 53-50 in the D-IV semifinals Thursday at the Schottenstein Center.
“We’re playing Saturday,” said Jackson Center coach Scott Elchert. “It was a tremendous game by both teams. It may have seemed like an upset to some, but not in our lockerroom.”
What a start to the 90th Annual State Boys Basketball Tournaments. And what a finish to a game in which the Nubians led most of the way, including a 15-point advantage with 3:23 left until half.
Who would’ve suspected the hero to be freshman guard Gavin Wildermuth, a scrawny 15-year-old bench player? After all, the five cheeky starting lads with steely determination had rattled off 26 straight wins, including a 50-37 mockery of Dayton Jefferson in the regional finals seven days ago.
But no…It’s tournament time. March Madness. And Wildermuth got down with the get-downs, draining two monster free throws with :13 ticks left. Even more clutch, it was the front-end of a 1+1 situation.
“I knew I would make those free throws because my teammates gave me the sign,” said Wildermuth while demonstrating the sign of one fist on top of the other. “I think about it all the time, shooting free throws to win the game. I’ve rehearsed the moment since fourth grade.”
It wasn’t just his clutch free throws. Held scoreless through three quarters, Wildermuth scored seven points in the final stanza, including a huge three with 4:58 left to knot the score for the first time, 46-46. Andy Hoying followed with a bucket in the paint and Jackson Center led for the first time 48-46 with 3:28 left.
Hosie Smith scored inside to even the score, but Alex Meyer answered by draining his second three of the quarter and the Tigers inched ahead 51-48 with 1:44 left. Smith scored again inside to cut the margin and coach Elchert called a 30-second time-out.
An orange mass rose to its feet. Just 90 seconds stood between the “One Game At A Time” faithful and a ticket to the championship game Saturday morning.
Meyer slipped and lost the ball near mid-court and Justin Miller recovered it, prompting Bates to call a full time-out with :22 left. Then Wildermuth stepped in front of a Trevon Saunders pass and was fouled. The rest was history.
Wildermuth explained, “I think Saunders’ pass was deflected after a mad scramble and I ended up with it.”
It was a horrible start for Jackson Center. Their man defense looked vulnerable and out of sync. Africentric’s guards dribble-penetrated the lane and then kicked it out on the perimeter to wide-open teammates. And the shots dropped at a 60 percent rate.
Coach Elchert said, “After Africentric came out gunning threes, which the scouting report said they don’t normally take, I thought, we’re gonna be in trouble if they keep making them. But we decided to take our chances and stick with the game plan. We just needed to stop their dribble penetration and we did as the game progressed.”
Indeed, Africentric jumped out to a blistering 14-2 lead. It was a three-for-all as Kenny Robinson and Fuquan Tucker lit it up from the perimeter with two each. But the Tigers weathered the storm and closed out the first quarter on a mini 6-0 run to narrow the deficit 16-10. Andy Hoying scored two baskets in the paint and Troy Opperman drained a 17-footer.
The Nubians surged ahead 28-13 in the second quarter behind Robinson’s three free throws and his third triple of the game. The junior guard, who transferred from Harvest Prep, scored 12 first-half points, including 3-of-3 from downtown. The kid is a definite D-I recruit at the mid-major level with deft ball-handling, quickness, and toughness.
But once again, Jackson Center kept hanging around and closed out the half on an 8-2 run to pull within 30-21. Meyer nailed a three and a 15-footer and Trey Elchert buried a step-back three from the top.
Coach Elchert said, “I really felt good about our fortune even though we were down nine at half. The way we played with missed free throws and our defense, I felt confident we could come back.”
Guilty of only three turnovers in the first quarter, Africentric recorded five miscues in the third quarter, opening the door for Jackson Center with 12 points off turnovers to slice the lead 42-38. The momentum shifted. Game on.
Africentric coach Michael Bates said, “We turned the ball over too many times in the second half and they capitalized which led to a lot of their points…It was a well-played game. They made the plays down the stretch and we didn’t. They executed down the stretch and we didn’t. They controlled the tempo and ran their sets with patience and they made more stops down the stretch.”
After a quiet first half with four points, oh easy-going Andy with the moppet-topped hair, awoke from hibernation and scored nine points, including a three from the right wing. The D-IV All-Ohio co-player of the year with Berlin Hiland’s Dylan Kaufman, finished the contest with 15 points (7-10 from the field) and grabbed eight rebounds. He looked like the Andy that torched Jefferson with 26 points.
Can’t wait to see these two tangle in the title game. Defending champs and ranked #2 Berlin Hiland (26-1) vs. Top-Ranked (27-0) Jackson Center. Patience and discipline against patience and discipline.
“That first half was rough,” Hoying said with a grin looking at his coach. “I got the message at half, though, and started going after the ball and knocked down the shots.”
Coach Elchert said, “I don’t know what Andy was waiting for, but he gave up some open looks. But I felt confident he would finish the deal. I felt confident our two dominant players, Andy and Alex, would answer the call come crunch time.”
Meyer finished the game with a team-high 16 points, including 4-of-7 from long-range. The junior guard was 1-of-4 in the first half, but heated up when it counted the most.
“We pride ourselves on poise. We knew we could bounce back because poise is what got us here,” Meyer said. “People love and remember that 1985 team that beat Werhle.”
I’m sure Meyer heard the story a 1,000 times since his dad Tony was the starting guard on that team.
And we must not forget the adhesive that holds this team like duct tape – little junior point guard Trey Elchert, the coach’s son. Like his dad said after the game, “He’s not flashy, but intelligent like the rest of his teammates.”
Elchert scored five points, dished out four assists and turned the ball over zero times.
Both Elcherts talked about their storybook scripts.
“Its been awesome. A true blessing from God. A dream come true for both of us,” said coach Elchert. “He’s been with me in the gym since he could crawl. I brought him to the state tournaments since he could walk. An unbelievable thrill.”
Trey said, “Its been special for me and my dad. We’ve watched tape together. Done a lot together. And now it has come full circle…Its something I’ve worked for my whole life since third grade.”
Both teams played a solid game. Africentric shot 52.6% from the field with 13 turnovers. And Jackson Center shot 48.8% with 10 turnovers.
Hosie Smith led all scorers with 19 points and hauled down seven rebounds for the Nubians. Smith was 9-of-11 from the field. Tucker finished with 10 points after a red-hot start in the first quarter with six points.
Jackson Center’s Eric Ryder turned in another solid performance with six points (3-3 from the field), three rebounds, and one block.
Coach Elchert concluded, “One game at a time. The last time Saturday. It’s a great feeling, but it hasn’t sunk in…When we got the lead, all of a sudden, the crowd sensed it. We sensed it…We will be fresh Saturday. Teams try to wear us down, but we got ballhandlers.”
And so, the Shelby County League continues to inspire other small-school teams with the belief that anything is possible, despite going up against bigger schools with labels like “magnet”, “charter”, “early college”. This league, comprised of seven public schools, has made six state appearances (boys and girls) the past three seasons.
Jackson Center has Beatlemania. Berlin Hiland has 6-5 Dylan Kaufman, 6-7 Seger Bonifant, and 6-7 Neil Gingerich.