DUBLIN, Ohio -- When it comes to Central Ohio hoops, there's a short list of rivalries that almost always live up to expectations and perhaps none better represented than the biannual battle between Upper Arlington and Dublin Coffman.
On Friday night, the rivalry delivered a classic once again, highlighted by a career-high 38 points from Coffman star Ajay Sheldon, who put on a masterful two-way performance to help the Rocks defeat the previously undefeated Golden Bears, 57-52.
For nearly the first 28 minutes, Upper Arlington never let go of their lead and consistently controlled the pace of the game through a balanced team effort via a group of well-seasoned seniors. With less than six minutes left in the fourth, senior Quinn Corna nailed his fourth three of the game to give the Bears their biggest lead, a 45-35 advantage and what appeared to be the dagger they desperately needed to put away a relentless Sheldon-led Coffman effort.
Determined to not let victory slip away, Sheldon continued to push and scored a quick three, followed by a one-for-two foul line trip. His quick-scoring ability was paired with a Coffman defense that began making Upper Arlington, who played all game with a confident and composed poise, uncomfortable and into a series of turnovers and fouls.
A ten-point lead dwindled down to just two, the Bears would again turn it over which led to Coffman's Aiden Schmidt made three-point attempt, his first basket of the game, which gave the Rocks their first lead at 48-47 with just under two minutes to go.
A series of missed opportunities and, depending which side one was rooting for, questionable officiating, would allow Coffman to regain possession and extend the lead at the free throw line. The Rocks had 21 free throw attempts compared to UA's six. The frustration led to a technical foul called on Upper Arlington senior Nick Heath, who had played a fantastic game, which then allowed Coffman to extend their lead to four points.
Corna would respond with his fifth three and cut Coffman's lead to two. Yet two made free throws from Coffman senior Ryan Lynn, whom Rocks coach Jamey Collins would praise for his defensive efforts after the game, gave the Rocks a two possession lead that would hold still towards victory.
While victories are always celebrated, Sheldon said afterwards that wins against Upper Arlington, especially in this type of fashion, are extra special.
"This is the game, this is the type of game that you want as a player," Sheldon said. "It was an awesome atmosphere, you live for these type of moments."
On Friday, Sheldon delivered a countless number of memorable moments that kept Coffman within reach all game long. Upper Arlington had played with strong execution, unselfish play, a quick tempo and well-rounded production, but it was Sheldon that kept the offensive engine alive and held the Bears lead to just two or three possessions.
"No one thought it was going to be easy," Sheldon said. "They have a great team, but you have to just keep going."
Keep going Sheldon did, as the Ohio University commit was nearly impossible to guard, with made shot attempts at nearly all spots of the court. Sheldon made three triples and capped his night with a 12-point fourth quarter. For Coffman head coach Jamey Collins, who has coached the Rocks since 2002, Sheldon's performance was one for the books.
"He's top 2, he's hall of fame," Collins said. "It's Chris Quinn and Ajay Sheldon," the veteran coach said of his all-star point guard, putting him in the same company as the 2002 Coffman grad and six-year NBA veteran.
That's high praise from a coach who has won four district titles and had a significant number of Division I recruits. Collins was also quick to point out the team's collective defensive effort and the added production from players such as Lynn and junior Nate Sommerfield.
While Sheldon should continue to produce at an elite level, Collins and the Rocks will need the consistent team production from the supporting cast to compete in the ultra-competitive OCC-Central division.
"Our division is so tough, I've seen nothing like it," Collins said. "Every game is 50-50, it's survival mode."
The fact the Rocks were able to come back and survive against an Upper Arlington team, who had won their first 10 games, speaks to the expected dog fight each night in conference play.
Even in defeat, the Bears played a solid three and a half quarters and looked to have excellent team chemistry. Corna finished with 23 points, Heath had 10, while fellow seniors Geoff Schoeny and Owen Gawel had seven and six points, respectively. The Bears were without senior wing forward Drew Graves, who sat out with a bruised knee.
Upper Arlington is now 10-1 and host an intriguing matchup against a talented Pickerington North team on Tuesday.
The Rocks (6-2) look to build off their momentous win with a quick turnaround on Saturday as they face Columbus Africentric as part of The Challenge at Africentric.
For more on Sheldon's spectacular evening and the excellent performance from Corna, read Zach Fleer's Prospect Scouting Report below.
Ajay Sheldon (6'1 hybrid guard / Dublin Coffman / 2022): Sheldon is a cold blooded killer. Friday was the greatest example of that, as he put on an absolute show to power Dublin Coffman to a massive win, while handing rival Upper Arlington their first loss on the year. The 6-foot-1 senior is a professional scorer, as he can fill it up in any way, possessing a dynamic handle and next level finishing package. He is a threat to pull up off the dribble at any minute, as he did a great job of that on Friday. The Ohio U commit drilled three triples, but found his best success going to the basket where he has the strength and body control to finish through contact. Sheldon knocked down seven free throws and made every single big play that Coffman needed to overcome the double digit fourth quarter deficit. With Ohio U dominating the MAC and sitting at 12-2, it seems unfair that they get to add Sheldon to the roster next year. But kudos to Jeff Boals for identifying Central Ohio talent and going after it aggressively. We are excited to see what Sheldon does the rest of this season, as Coffman literally needs every ounce of offense he provides them.
Quinn Corna (6'3 SG / Upper Arlington / 2022): Friday was another stellar showing for Corna, as he showed up in a big way for the Golden Bears. The senior hit five threes and scored 23 points to lead the Upper Arlington offensive attack. Corna is one of the deadliest shooters off movement, as he can set his feet and get the ball off in a hurry. If you leave Corna any space in the corners, he will make you pay, as that is his money range and where he is most successful. The senior has been a mainstay in the Upper Arlington lineup for three years and is putting together a great end to a stellar career. In the toughest games, you need your primetime players to play to their potential, and Corna certainly has that ability.