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Almost Champions: Worthington Christian shows heart in close loss to Lutheran East

By Greg Glasser, 03/21/21, 7:15PM EDT

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Led by DJ Moore's 28 points, Warriors comeback rally falls short in Division III state championship

DAYTON, Ohio -- In a Worthington Christian season that saw a 27-1 record and featured theatric performances of the game-winning fashion, the Warriors had nearly seen it all this season and executed to a near-perfect record.

That was until they met Cleveland Heights Lutheran East in the Division III state championship on Sunday in Dayton Arena.

A seasoned program this time of March, the Falcons were in their fourth straight state tournament and back-to-back state championship appearances.

With a roster that starts five seniors, all of which are committed to or offered by scholarship programs, Lutheran East's balanced and superb athleticism ultimately overwhelmed Worthington Christian in a 61-56 defeat.

Despite a solid defensive effort early, it was a nightmare start offensively for Worthington Christian.

The Warriors missed their first ten field goal attempts and were saved by a DJ Moore buzzer-beater three to finish the first quarter at a 10-5 deficit.

Although Lutheran East had a slow start offensively of their own, the Falcons used their balanced roster and athleticism that began to overwhelm the Warriors. 

Momentum for the Warriors felt at its lowest was when Falcons senior Sirr Hughes hit a corner three-pointer to end the third quarter to give Lutheran East a nine-point lead to end the third.

After the Warriors scored only 30 points in the first three quarters, Worthington Christian and Moore recognized the pace of play would have to seriously speed up for any chance of a fourth-quarter comeback attempt.

Through aggressive full-court defense and a masterful performance from Moore, the Warriors scored 23 fourth-quarter points and cut Lutheran East's lead to two points after a Tommy Anthony backcourt steal and lay-up with under a minute to go.

Yet the Falcons were able to make enough free throws and prevent quality offensive looks for Worthington Christian to finish with the five-point victory.

The close defeat only hurts more for the Warriors after you consider the relentless effort they put forth all game, with no performance more admirable than the junior and Liberty commit Moore. 

The lead guard, who drained the semifinal game-winning shot on Friday, took an already outstanding game and delivered a relentless fourth-quarter that should be fondly remembered, even in defeat.

Moore scored 12 of his game-high 28 points in the final period, on four-of-five shooting and added three assists and three steals.

While the comeback wouldn't have been a possibility without Moore, he was supported by his teammates who showed no intimidation against a talented Lutheran East roster.

Indiana Wesleyan commit Tyler Kindberg ended his fantastic Warriors career with 13 points with passionate play to cap his wildly entertaining season.

Fellow senior Kobe Buford had five points and provided his brand of hustle through a form of drawn offensive fouls and strong defense. 

The Warriors post duo of senior Isaiah Hazelwood and freshman Sam Johnson had four and six points each.

The Worthington Christian forwards had the challenge of defending Lutheran East senior and Georgetown commit Jalin Billingsley. 

After just three points in the first quarter, the six-foot-eight Billingsley became a tough mismatch and was a force on both ends towards a 24 point, 12 rebound, 3 block performance.

Falcons seniors Hughes and Jalen Knott, both committed to Division II Alderson Broadus, each had 11 points and combined 12 rebounds. 

The championship for Lutheran East, which is third in program history, helps make up for the memory of the 2019 runner-up performance in which the Falcons lost 55-42 to Harvest Prep.

For Worthington Christian, the emotional loss shouldn't overlook the incredible accomplishments on their season. 

The Warriors graduate a strong senior class, which included three starters and six players overall.

Yet it's the return of Moore, a legitimate candidate for Mr. Ohio next season, and some notable underclassmen such as Johnson, that give Warriors fans a sense of optimism they will have a chance of revenge of their own.

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