COLUMBUS, Ohio -- It's the best time of the year. District final weekend has arrived and teams will be tested in the biggest way under the brightest of lights. Let's take a look at what's on tap.
This is the first district final Saturday that will not feature Pickerington Central since 2015, which is also the last time that Delaware Hayes advanced this far in the tournament. Delaware knocked off Central on Wednesday in the upset of the tournament.
Pickerington North makes its third trip to the district finals in the last four years. The Panthers are 2-0 in its previous appearances, knocking off Newark in 2017 and Thomas Worthington in 2019.
Pickerington North has won at least 20 games in four-straight seasons as head coach Jason Bates celebrated his 200th career victory in the Panthers’ district semifinal win over Chillicothe.
Pickerington North, Hilliard Bradley, Newark and South are the only programs in the area with four-straight seasons of at least 20 wins. All but the latter will play on Saturday, while South’s amazing four-year run was ended in the district semifinals against Westerville Central.
Thomas Worthington makes its first back-to-back trip to the district finals in the last two decades. The Cardinals have gone 0-4 in this round since its last title in 2001.
Gahanna enters as the top seed for the first time since 2016 when the Lions lost to eventual state champion Westerville South in the regional final. That was the last time Gahanna appeared in a district final, capping a run of four-straight appearances.
In the last season that ended in the number 0 (2010), Gahanna won a regional title, upsetting national No. 1 Northland in one of the greatest local games in history.
Gahanna became only the second program ever to win 200 games in a decade when the Lions knocked off Whitehall in the district semifinals. The Lions joined Brookhaven (208 wins in the 2000s) in the elite club.
Walnut Ridge makes its first appearance in the Division I district finals since 2012 when the Scots lost a close one to Olentangy Liberty.
Walnut Ridge senior VonCameron Davis is the only player in the tournament with 2,000+ career points.
Westerville Central is back in the district finals for the first time since 2014 when the Warhawks fell to Northland. The Warhawks have quickly bounced back from a 10-13 campaign a year ago.
The matchup between Westerville Central and Delaware Hayes is the lowest seeded district final in recent memory with a combined seed value of 31. For comparison, the next closest matchup is Pickerington North vs. Thomas Worthington where the combined value of the two teams’ seeds is 12, one value higher than No. 13 Westerville Central.
Delaware Hayes made it out of the sectionals for the first time since 2015, which was also the last time the Pacers advanced to the district finals. The Pacers will once again square off against a school from Westerville, except this time their opponent won’t feature two high-major studs.
Delaware Hayes has the longest district title drought of any team (with at least one title in its history) in the tournament. The Pacers won their first and only district title in 1985.
Hilliard Bradley has the area’s best record over the last three years, going 70-6. The Jags have not lost a OCC-Cardinal conference game in the last four seasons, winning 52-straight league games. The only missing piece in the Bradley trophy case is a regional title, as the Jags fell in a heartbreaker to Pickerington Central in the 2018 regional final.
Hilliard Bradley has not lost more than two games in a season since the 2015-16 season. The Jags will need to win a state championship this year in order to keep that streak alive.
Newark is appearing in its 11th district final since 2001. The Wildcats have gone 5-5 in those 10 trips, however, they’re 2-5 since 2012.
Saturday’s finale is a rematch of a 2018-19 regular season showdown between Newark and Hilliard Bradley that the Wildcats lost 43-42. That loss seemed to provide a spark for Newark who went on to win its first district title since 2015.
Outlook: This game feels a lot like deja vu. These two squads met up in the 11 a.m. district final slot last year after Thomas Worthington shocked Hilliard Bradley in the district semifinals, only for Pickerington North to race past the banged up Cardinals 72-60 on their way to a district title despite a monster performance from Jalen Sullinger.
Thomas Worthington is not the banged up team in this year’s matchup, however, as most all fans of hoops in the area know that Pickerington North has been without star junior Jack Sawyer all season, and Saturday morning will be no different. Despite the loss of Sawyer, the Panthers have taken no steps back this season as they have raced through most of their schedule, going 8-2 in OCC-Ohio play and picking up quality wins over opponents like Gahanna, Pickerington Central, St. Charles and Milton (GA).
For Thomas Worthington, three of the Cardinals five losses have come at the hands of some of the best competition the area has to offer, as they were defeated by South early on in the season and twice by Hilliard Bradley. Despite a questionable late season loss to Worthington Kilbourne, the Cards have seemed to turn it on as of late, coming together as a team to pick a gritty last-second win over Olentangy in the sectional finals and then dominating Olentangy Liberty by 20 points in the district semifinals.
While it all starts in the backcourt for the Cardinals with the play of Sullinger, they look quite different this time around than the last time these two teams met up, as juniors Tyrese Hughey and Omari Effiong have been a major help for Thomas Worthington all season and have added a lot of value on the defensive end of the floor. Junior wing Isaac Settles will play a major role in Saturday’s matchup as well, as he will likely be tasked with defending Pickerington North senior Hunter Shedenhelm. Settles has the tools and ability necessary to make a difference on both ends, however, his effort will dictate how much of a difference he can make on Saturday
For Pickerington North, junior guard Casey George will need to have a big game, as he has made some huge strides this year to become one of the area’s better guards and will have a very tough matchup on his hands with Sullinger. Shedenhelm and fellow senior Chris Scott will also need to step up on both ends for the Panthers, as they’ve both enjoyed a solid season and are looked to to score the ball a lot for Pickerington North. Senior big Savion Marshall-Hamilton and junior Elijah Hawk will also have the chance to make a huge impact on this game, as they can give the Panthers a big boost if they’re able to slow down Hughey on the interior and control the glass on both ends.
While Pickerington North will look to win their second straight district title over Thomas Worthington on Saturday, Sullinger and the Cardinals will try to win their first district since 2001 when his father, JJ, was running the show.
Outlook: This may just be the best game across the entire state of Ohio on Saturday, as Walnut Ridge and Gahanna will go to war at 2 p.m. in a game that’s a rematch from a contest earlier this season where the Lions picked up a huge 53-50 win at the 5C Classic after a controversial buzzer beater from junior Jarius Jones sent the Walnut Ridge faithful home believing that the game shouldn’t be over yet.
Surviving a near upset against Reynoldsburg 59-57 in the district semifinals, the Scots have set up the rematch they’ve been longing for. For Walnut Ridge, it all starts in the frontcourt with potential Mr. Basketball winner VonCameron Davis. The central district POY comes into the contest averaging 27.2 points per game, as he is virtually unstoppable near the rim. Even while battling foul trouble, he still went off for 27 in the last matchup with Gahanna, something to keep an eye on heading into Saturday.
Anybody who has watched Gahanna this year knows that the Lions are led by sophomore phenom Sean Jones, who was named OCC-Ohio POY and is arguably the best guard in the entire state. Jones can do it all on both ends, as he creates for others better than anybody in the area and can score in just about any way possible. Juniors Maceo Williams and Jarius Jones will also have to play a big role in the contest along with seniors Nate Staib and Zane Leitwein. While Williams and Jarius Jones have enjoyed breakout seasons this year, Staib and Leitwein have been fantastic as well, proving to be fantastic glue guys who can make big plays when needed.
For Walnut Ridge, seniors Qian Magwood and Kaveon Ross will also be looked upon to lead them on Saturday, as the two have been great alongside Davis all season. Juniors Leon Douglas, Daaron Brown and Myles Garrett will all need to step up and help give the Scots’ big three some help in the matchup as well.
This game will be an absolute dog fight as both of these teams are as hungry as ever and play with a ton of passion. The big time players always step up in the spotlight, so it will most definitely be a treat to watch Davis’ and Jones’ squads do battle tomorrow afternoon.
Outlook: This was not the district final that many folks were expecting to see out of the Columbus 2 district, as both South and Pickerington Central were heavily favored to match up in this game. With Westerville Central defeating South and Delaware Hayes taking down Pickerington Central, we now have a matchup between two programs who had some ups and downs throughout the season, but are playing their best basketball right now.
Delaware Hayes hasn’t won a district title since 1980. The Pacers started out this season 0-5, dropping some questionable games to Dublin Scioto and Hilliard Darby. However, they excelled after the return of senior guard Nate Griggs and have won two huge games in a row over St. Charles and Pickerington Central. Griggs and senior wing Paul Burris both lead the way for the Pacers, while guys like Ryan Smudz, Addison Harvey and Nabil-Abdus Salaam all play a key role in the rotation.
For Westerville Central, it all starts in the backcourt with their junior trio of MJ Davis, Tasos Cook and Quincy Clark. Cook has been their best player this season and is coming in fresh off of a 26 point showing in a huge win over South, while Davis excels defending on the perimeter and Clark is a playmaking guard who has really impressed as a passer this season.
The Warhawks have impressed most this season while running in transition, while Delaware Hayes likes to play in the half court, run good sets and take their time in order to find good looks. The Pacers are not uncomfortable playing a fast game, however, Westerville Central will have their best chance to win if they run the floor, force turnovers and apply pressure on the perimeter.
It will be interesting to see how they deal with the length and size of Burris on the interior, but if they get a big night from their guards, the Warhawks will have a good shot to win their first district final ever. Despite both these teams being underdogs in previous matchups, this may be one of the best games of the day, as they’re both very hungry squads who are on a mission.
Outlook: If you love good basketball, you will absolutely love the nightcap on Saturday as Hilliard Bradley and Newark will go at it in a matchup between two squads with a combined record of 57-5. This game features two of the most elite coaches in the state between Brett Norris and Jeff Quackenbush and both squads take pride in executing on both ends, defending, rebounding and taking good shots.
Matt Allocco will be the alpha dog on the floor in this matchup, as the senior is 52-0 in his career in OCC-Cardinal play and also won a district title in 2018. Allocco will look to fellow guards AJ Mirgon and Keaton Norris for help on the offensive end, while brothers Tayshaun and Chris Mayfield along with Peyton Murphy help the Jags hold the paint down and dominate on the defensive end the way that they do.
Senior forwards Bobby Crenshaw and Jaden Woods lead Newark on both ends. Crenshaw was named Co-OCC-Capital POY, while Woods is extremely efficient on the offensive end. Junior guards Kade Bafford and Drew Ballinger give them help in the backcourt along with senior Kadin Robinson.
In order to take down Bradley, the Wildcats will need to knock down open shots, rebound, and not allow Allocco to take the game over late. With the pace that the Jaguars play at, this game will likely be played pretty tightly throughout. Newark can not allow Hilliard Bradley to jump out to a comfortable lead early on, however, as a 10 point deficit against the Jaguars can feel like 30 points.
While squads like Hilliard Bradley are extremely tough to take down in the postseason, Newark is one of the better matchups for them around the area, as it helps them leaps and bounds that they have the same elite coaching that the Jaguars do. Expect this game to be extremely intense and physical as these gritty squads will give the people their money’s worth in the nightcap.