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Division I District Final Preview

By Zach Fleer, 03/07/19, 3:30PM EST


Previewing the Division I district finals on Saturday

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Wednesday's district semifinals brought plenty of chaos to Central Ohio with top seeds Dublin Coffman and Hilliard Bradley going down. With a much different district final slate than what was expected, let's dive into what Saturday at the Columbus Convention Center will look like. 

District Final Fast Facts

  • For the second-straight season, the No. 1 seed has been knocked out before the district finals.
  • The OCC-Ohio has had at least two teams in every district final round since 2012, a streak of eight-straight seasons. No other conference has done that more than four times.
  • Neither Dublin Coffman or Upper Arlington will be represented for the first time since 2015.
  • Hilliard Bradley misses the district finals for the first time since 2016, as its 71-6 three-year run came to an end on Wednesday.
  • The Columbus City League will not be represented for the fourth-straight season, as Northland was the last team to play for a title in 2015.
  • Pickerington Central makes its seventh trip in eight years. The Tigers are 6-0 in district finals since 2012, knocking off Dublin Coffman (twice) Newark, Olentangy Orange, Zanesville and Westerville North in those games. 
  • Newark makes its sixth trip to the district finals in eight years. Despite major success in the regular season and first three rounds of the tournament, the Wildcats are 1-4 in district final games since 2012. Newark's lone win came against Tri-Valley in 2015.
  • Pickerington North makes its second trip in three years. The Panthers won its first and only district title in 2017 and will look to add No. 2 on Saturday. Jason Bates has totally revitalized the program, as the Panthers were 3-20 in the season before he took the job in 2014.
  • Reynoldsburg makes its third trip to the district finals in the last eight years. The Raiders are 2-0 in their last two trips, upsetting state-ranked Northland in 2012 before waiting six years for its next title when it rolled over cinderella Mount Vernon a year ago.
  • Hilliard Davidson makes its third trip to the district finals since 2016. The Wildcats are 0-2 in those games, losing to eventual state champion Westerville South in 2016 and managing just 19 points in an 18-point loss to St. Charles in 2017. Davidson will look for better results on Saturday.
  • Olentangy Liberty makes its third trip to the district finals since 2012. The Patriots made back-to-back appearances in 2012 and 2013, knocking off Walnut Ridge in its first trip before losing to top seed Northland the following year. The Patriots are led by Ben Roderick who will become possibly the first-ever Olentangy school district player to play Division I basketball this fall. 
  • Olentangy Orange appears in a district final for the first time since 2013 when the Pioneers fought hard but fell to Jae'Sean Tate and Pickerington Central. The Pioneers are looking for its first district title in school history. 
  • It's been a long time coming for Thomas Worthington. While making its first district final appearance since 2008, the Cardinals have gone 18 years between titles. Thomas Worthington's last district title came in 2001 when senior JJ Sullinger led the Cardinals over Reynoldsburg. Sullinger's son, Jalen Sullinger, enters the Columbus Convention Center with a chance to do what his old man did just 18 years prior. 

The Matchups


#5 Pickerington North (21-4) vs. #17 Thomas Worthington (17-7)

Columbus Convention Center - 11 a.m.

  • #5 Pickerington North (21-4)
    • Last district title: 2017
    • Last appearance: 2017
    • Three-year record: 62-16
    • Tournament path: W, 56-36 vs. #42 Watkins Memorial - W, 71-25 vs. #41 Briggs - W, 68-36 vs. #10 Canal Winchester
  • #17 Thomas Worthington (17-7)
    • Last district title: 2001
    • Last appearance: 2008
    • Three-year record: 33-37
    • Tournament path: W, 63-52 vs. #21 Groveport - W, 46-41 vs. #2 Hilliard Bradley

Outlook: Thomas Worthington enters the district finals as the lowest seeded team remaining in the tournament, however, the Cardinals have great momentum after finally knocking off Hilliard Bradley for the first time in nine years. The underdogs will be without senior center Ben Wight, who suffered a concussion in the district semifinal victory. Despite that, Thomas Worthington is confident heading into Saturday.

For Pickerington North, the Panthers are the hottest team in the tournament, outscoring opponents by 98 points through the first three rounds. With versatile athletes like Jack Sawyer, Chris Scott and Hunter Shedenhelm, Pickerington North is one of the toughest two-way teams in the state and will be favored in this matchup.

In the district semifinal win over Canal Winchester, North got into the Indians and really bothered them, pushing them off their spots and forcing turnovers that led to above the rim theatrics in the open floor. The Panthers are surely going to apply that same approach to the Cardinals, as Thomas is playing this far in the tournament for the first time since its seniors were in kindergarten. Shedenhelm, Scott and sophomore guard Idris Lawrence are a terrific perimeter defending trio, while Sawyer sets the tone in the middle as a rugged, trash talking big that can really frustrate opposing players and teams. 

Without a true matchup for Sawyer, Thomas could be in for a long day if their shots go cold. Sawyer is a three-level scorer and specimen that most high school players cannot compete with physically. With Wight out of the game, Thomas won't have as much size as usual, but the Cardinals will still fight regardless. 

Thomas' response to North's physicality early on will tell the entire story of the game. Already handling a physical specimen in Hilliard Bradley, the Cardinals enter Saturday with more confidence than what they might have had coming into the week. In order to overcome the Panthers, Thomas will need to shoot lights out once again like it did in the upset win over Bradley and limit turnovers as North will look to pressure and trap for 32 minutes. 

Sophomore guards Jalen Sullinger and Isaac Settles will be greatly relied upon once again, as they combined for 21 of the Cardinals' 46 points in the win over Bradley. Sullinger is an elite ball handler who keeps the ball on a string, limits turnovers and has a good feel, which will be critical against a Panthers team that tries to speed teams up and force them into mistakes.

Settles might just be the key, as the athletic 6-foot-5 wing guard will be one of the most gifted athletes on a court full of scholarship-level basketball and football prospects. If Settles can build off Wednesday's performance where he hit two key threes and finished with a team-high 13 points and translate that into a major district final showing, then Thomas might just have what it takes to hang around long enough with the Panthers to secure a win. 

Senior guard Charlie Mamlin could be a player to watch out for, as the three-point marksman is coming off a strong performance against Bradley where he went 3-for-3 from deep and scored 11 major points. Another impressive showing from the senior guard would greatly help Thomas. 

It will be interesting to see if Thomas tries to play at the same snail's pace that it beat Bradley with, or if the Cardinals will open it up and run with the Panthers. Entering Saturday's matchup as David against Goliath for the second-straight game, we're intrigued to see if Thomas Worthington has any bit of magic left. 

#3 Pickerington Central (24-1) vs. #7 Reynoldsburg (20-5)

Columbus Convention Center - 1:30 p.m.

  • #3 Pickerington Central (24-1)
    • Last district title: 2018
    • Last appearance: 2018
    • Three-year record: 68-13
    • Tournament path: W, 85-33 vs. #45 Westland - W, 64-23 vs. #44 West - W, 49-33 vs. #26 Big Walnut
  • #8 Reynoldsburg (20-5)
    • Last district title: 2018
    • Last appearance: 2018
    • Three-year record: 57-20
    • Tournament path: W, 85-43 vs. #38 Mifflin - W, 65-63 (OT) vs. #27 Westerville South - W, 35-33 vs. #8 Upper Arlington

Outlook:  Friday's Division I girls regional final will pit Pickerington Central vs. Reynoldsburg with a trip to the state tournament on the line. Reynoldsburg played the Tigers tough in both games, but couldn't put together a run long enough to secure a win. The Raiders are hoping the third matchup will shift the balance and help them finally overcome the bully.

Saturday's boys district final offers the exact same scenario as the Raiders are coming into its third matchup against Central since Dec. 21. Losing by a combined 13 points in those two games, the Raiders played solid for long stretches but had one quarter get away from them in each game to allow Central to distance themselves.

Appearing in its second-straight district final, Reynoldsburg is looking to go back-to-back and hand Central its first loss in a district title game in more than a decade. In order for that to happen, Reynoldsburg has to start fast and cannot allow any type of lapse for 32 minutes.

That is easier said than done as Central is as big game battle tested as any program in the state, winning six district titles in the past seven seasons and going for its fourth-straight, a feat that no Division I team has accomplished since Brookhaven rattled off seven in a row from 2000-2006.  Behind the best guard in the area in Javohn Garcia, the Tigers are ready for the bright lights and are on a mission to get back to the state tournament for the third-straight year.

In order to get there, they have to take each game one at a time, which means they absolutely cannot sleep on Reynoldsburg. The Raiders are long and athletic enough to get under Central's skin and frustrate them, something that not many teams in the state are capable of doing. Every player in the Raiders rotation will need to be dialed in from the opening tip, but none more than senior Ben Fort. 

Reynoldsburg matches up well with the Tigers, as long, athletic pieces like senior Xavier Prince, senior Sahmi Willoughby and junior Sean Moore are capable of containing Central's top offensive weapons. A player that will need to play to his potential is sophomore Josiah Mobley, who was the hero in the Raiders even getting to this point, as he came in and scored eight-straight points to help Reynoldsburg overcome Westerville South in the sectional finals.

For Central, Garcia is the lifeblood of the team, as they go as he goes. A big-time guard talent that can change a game on both ends of the floor, we expect Garcia to come out with something to prove on Saturday. Look for big performances from senior post Coleton Landis and sophomore wing Garner Wallace, two players that have excelled at various stages of the season as secondary scoring options.

A player that could be due for a breakout game on the big stage is junior Tahleik Walker. A stellar perimeter defender and knockdown shooter, Walker could be a player who steps up in a big moment to help the Tigers take home yet another district title. 

At this time of the year it can be very easy to look ahead to the regionals and states, something that Central might be doing already. Before any of that can take place, the Tigers must take care of business against a Reynoldsburg team that is dying to beat them.

#4 Olentangy Liberty (21-4) vs. #6 Hilliard Davidson (20-5)

Columbus Convention Center - 5 p.m.

  • #4 Olentangy Liberty (21-4)
    • Last district title: 2012
    • Last appearance: 2013
    • Three-year record: 47-26
    • Tournament path: W, 74-41 vs. #40 Hilliard Darby - W, 89-52 vs. #39 Licking Heights - W, 73-57 vs. #22 Westerville North
  • #6 Hilliard Davidson (20-5)
    • Last district title: 2000 (shoutout to Steve Balmert and Goey Mueller)
    • Last appearance: 2017
    • Three-year record: 52-22
    • Tournament path: W, 46-38 vs. #34 New Albany - W, 41-30 vs. #29 Teays Valley - W, 57-55 vs. #16 Olentangy

Outlook: This is a rematch of a Jan. 22 showdown where Davidson knocked off Liberty by way of a buzzer beating shot from Jacob Drees. That game was one of six all season where Davidson allowed more than 60 points, as the Wildcats lost four of the other five games where such an instance occurred. 61 points seems to be the benchmark when playing against the Wildcats, as Liberty will look to score early and often to bring home its first district title since 2012.

The Patriots are led by the area's best player in senior Ben Roderick, who comes into Saturday as the top scorer in Central Ohio. Roderick was held to 22 points in the last meeting with the Wildcats, several points below his average, which combined with 10 fourth quarter points from Drees, helped Davidson pull off the victory at home.

This time these teams meet up under the bright lights at the Columbus Convention Center, far away from the friendly confines of Davidson's home gym. In environments like this, the cream always rises to the crop, which seems to give Liberty an advantage thanks to the mega talents of the 6-foot-5 Roderick.

However, Roderick can't do it all by himself. Fellow senior Nick Nakasian, a Carnegie Mellon commit, has enjoyed a great senior season and is the bonafide secondary scoring option to Roderick. These two have grown together the last four years, somewhat reminiscent of Upper Arlington's Kevin Vannatta and Danny Hummer five years back. Roderick and Nakasian are hoping their careers also end in a district title and much more, as Liberty's group of seniors have played together for the last nine years, another element similar to that of the 2014 state runner-up Upper Arlington team.

Standing in their way is a defensive stalwart in Davidson that features a monster front court with plenty of size, strength and versatility. When playing at their preferred pace, Davidson is dangerous, as the Wildcats eliminate second chance opportunities on the glass and can defend every spot on the floor. Drees and fellow 6-foot-7 senior Christian Gillilan are a terrific duo up front, while 6-foot-5 junior Gage Keys has been stellar since returning from injury midway through the season. The player that seems to be the key for the Wildcats is senior guard Caleb Stimmel, one of the most deadly shooters in the area, who scored 13 points in the last 10 minutes of Wednesday's semifinal win over Olentangy, including the go-ahead three in the final seconds. When Stimmel is dialed in and hitting shots, Davidson is very tough to contain.

Fortunately for Liberty, the Patriots have the size, toughness and senior leadership to go to blows with Davidson, which should make this 5 p.m. matchup an instant classic. Just about every player who will log a minute on Saturday will be a senior, as we expect these teams to fight until the very final buzzer in what could be the best game of the day. 

#9 Newark (19-6) vs. #13 Olentangy Orange (17-7)

Columbus Convention Center - 7:30 p.m.

  • #9 Newark (19-6)
    • Last district title: 2015
    • Last appearance: 2017
    • Three-year record: 64-12
    • Tournament path: W, 36-24 vs. #32 Central Crossing - W, 61-43 vs. #31 Whitehall - W, 62-55 vs. #12 Walnut Ridge
  • #13 Olentangy Orange (17-7)
    • Last district title: None in school history
    • Last appearance: 2013
    • Three-year record: 38-32
    • Tournament path: W, 66-59 vs. #20 Delaware Hayes - W, 77-67 vs. #1 Dublin Coffman

Outlook: If any high school basketball fan in the area said they had this matchup on their brackets a month ago, they're a damn liar. Sitting at Watkins Memorial surrounded by a sea of maroon clad Newark fans, a sigh of relief was felt in the atmosphere after the Wildcats held off a late Walnut Ridge rally and heard the news of Olentangy Orange's upset of top-seeded Dublin Coffman. While Newark may have preferred to play Orange instead of the Rocks who beat them in the district finals back in 2014, the Wildcats should not take the Pioneers lightly.

Behind senior guard Bryson Lane, who is honestly playing as well as ANY guard in the area, Orange has been dangerous for the last month. Winning eight of its last nine games and knocking off quality opponents in Delaware Hayes and Coffman in the tournament, Orange is rolling at the right time. Coached by one of the area's elite young minds in Anthony Calo, Orange is looking to win its first district title in school history on Saturday. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Newark enters Saturday looking to win its 24th (!!!!!) district title in school history. The young Wildcats might have arrived a year early, as its new cast of starters and role players have grown up quickly and helped Newark return to this familiar stage. With only a handful of seniors on the roster, 6-foot-8 post Keshawn Heard has developed into the leader that he needed to become in order for Newark to reach this point.

Heard is a calming presence on both ends of the floor, as he has grown into a reliable mid-range shooter, post scoring threat, rebounder and shot blocker. Going up against an Orange team without a true big man, Heard will be huge for Newark, as the Wildcats will need to get him involved early on, while his ability to alter shots at the rim will be something to watch.

Heard is far from a one-man show, though. Newark has a variety of intriguing non-seniors that have each evolved into key role players. There may be none more exciting than junior combo guard Bobby Crenshaw, an elite-level athlete who has grown by leaps and bounds since the opening game of the year. In his first season of organized basketball, Crenshaw has developed at a rapid pace, a testament to how elite of a coach Jeff Quackenbush is. In the district semifinal win over Walnut Ridge, Crenshaw was the best athlete on the floor and the type of point of attack defender that disrupted the Scots' offensive rhythm.

We expect Newark to put Crenshaw on Lane in the one-on-one matchup that could swing the matchup. Newark has matchups for every one of Orange's offensive weapons, as the Wildcats are a versatile group that defends as one.

Sophomore guards Kade Bafford and Drew Ballinger are capable of making big shots, with Bafford especially excelling on the defensive perimeter where the strong guard moves very well laterally, getting under opposing ball handlers and frustrating them. Look for Bafford and Crenshaw to take turns defending Lane at the point of attack.

A potential x-factor could be junior forward Jaden Woods, who we expect to be matched up with junior Ryan Cutler of Orange. Woods is a high IQ role player that can score when he needs to, but has been very good as a helpside defender that is always in the right place at the right time. Woods just wants to win and is the type of team-first kid that makes the culture of the Newark program what it is.

One of the area's elite defensive units year after year, Newark will be tested with an Orange squad that has plenty of firepower. In the backcourt, the three-headed monster of Lane, senior Luke Ballinger and sophomore Andre Irvin are dynamic in their own way. Lane is a shifty ball handling guard that can score it off the bounce, while Ballinger and Irvin are two deadly shooters that don't need much space to be effective.

When all three are rolling, Orange is at their best, which has been the case as of late. Lane went for 29 points in the win over Coffman and showed why he earned second-team all-district honors. We expect the Ohio Wesleyan commit to have another big showing, but Orange will need a high level of production from Ballinger and Irvin to make program history.

Senior Nik Brannon will likely be tasked with dealing with Heard, which could be an intriguing matchup to watch, as the athletic 6-foot-5 Brannon is one of the better late blooming senior wings in the OCC. 

This game will be a test of toughness, strength, depth and especially coaching, as both programs have plenty of IQ on the bench. Will Orange get its first title in school history or will Newark add more hardware to an already illustrious trophy case? We can't wait to find out as this is by far the most unique matchup of all four district finals. 

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