COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In a classic case of a tale of two halves, Africentric ultimately played the better hand when it mattered most as they overcame a double-digit second half deficit and used a 18-3 fourth quarter and beat Beechcroft 65-58 to win their first City League title since 2005.
After Beechcroft stormed out to a 39-27 halftime lead, it was fair to speculate if the highly-anticipated matchup would finish a competitive game at all. The senior led Cougars looked every bit the more determined and well-rounded team through the first two periods.
The power forward duo of 6-foot-8 Amani Lyles and 6-foot-5 Antwoin Reed Jr. provided a major size advantage that initially overwhelmed the Nubians. The two seniors combined for 18 first half points and controlled every bit of the interior. Lyles erupted the East High gym as he delivered one of the best posterized slams we've seen this season to give the Cougars significant momentum and a 14-point lead.
Beechcroft's guards JJ Simmons and Jamari Strickland also made significant first half contributions, as they combined for 19 points and three total triples while Simmons had excellent control of the offense and added four assists.
For Africentric, beyond senior Dan Wagner, the Nubians lacked an ability to match the Cougars assertiveness and edge. Wagner, a 6-foot-1 guard that is committed to play football at Toledo, was the only consistent source of offensive production in the first half as his 15 points and three triples prevented the Nubians from an even more staggering halftime deficit.
While junior Dailyn Swain had not necessarily forced any mistakes or bad shots, he was relatively subdued the first 20 minutes. The Cougars did a strong job of throwing multiple defenders at him and prevented him from getting to his spots. Yet, the top 100 national recruit could only be contained for so long.
After Africentric assistant coach Neshaun Coleman recommended the Nubians switch to a 1-3-1 defense, Swain and company quickly began to pressure the Cougars offense into a plethora of turnovers that created quick scoring opportunities for Africentric. The defensive adjustment proved to do wonders, as the Cougars cut a 15-point deficit down to just five with under a minute to go in the third.
"That was 100% Coleman's call to go 1-3-1," veteran Africentric coach Michael Bates said after the game. "And I trusted him. He's been with me since day one. I wouldn't be here without him and I want people to know that."
Beechcroft's Simmons would hit a much-needed three pointer to give the Cougars an eight point lead headed into the final period. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the late triple would not carry any momentum for them into the fourth.
Africentric's zone defense only intensified, as they forced Beechcroft into four straight turnovers and countered offensively to tie the game. A beautiful open court Euro step from Swain gave the Nubians a two point lead.
With momentum fully on Africentric's side, the Cougars looked timid on offense as they had difficulty of creating any penetration into the zone.
"We saw them passing a lot back and forth and thought the 1-3-1 could contain the duo of their big fellas," Bates said.
Any time Lyles was fed the ball, a swarm of Nubian defenders would cover. The Cougars were held scoreless the entire fourth period until Lyles sank one of two free throws with just 1:06 left in the game. Beechcroft would score only one more basket and the damage had become too significant as Africentric was able to firmly close out a 65-58 victory.
The Nubians second-half comeback will be the talk of the city for years to come, but so will the performance of Swain, who executed a masterful two-way game that validated his high national recruiting rank. Arguably the best defender in Central Ohio, the 6-foot-8 four star prospect used his gifted length and athleticism on defense to help spark an offensive rally, as he scored 17 of his 22 points in the second half, with 15 of those in the final 12 minutes.
"Really, it was just about not gambling a lot [on defense]," Swain said. "I really focused on rebounding and going for steals in the right spot and not putting my team in a disadvantage."
Swain impacted the game in every way, as he was virtually unstoppable in the open court and grabbed nearly every team rebound in the second half to finish with eight boards. His defensive abilities and skillset were a perfect recipe for the 1-3-1 zone, which caused constant disruption as Beechcroft struggled massively to get through him. Swain finished with six steals and added four massive blocks, many of which came against the Cougars talented and physical front court.
Wagner was another natural athletic fit in Africentric's defensive zone adjustments, as he did an excellent job to irritate Beechcroft's guards and prevented them from finding Lyles in open space. Wagner finished with 18 points and four rebounds.
Sophomore guard Laron Fuller was a major difference maker off the bench, as he scored all seven of his points in the fourth quarter. "Laron came in the second half and defensively, he was phenomenal," Bates said. "He did everything we asked him to do."
After a somewhat slow start, junior Preston Steele did an excellent job of matching the intensity of the Cougars front court as he finished with 11 points and one significant block in the fourth.
"When Preston had that block on Amani, that set the tone," Bates said. "That play said, 'we won't give up anything in the paint.'" The Nubians head coach was mostly right as the Cougars would only score one more field goal after Steele's block.
While the Cougars failed to become the first repeat City League champions since Northland went back-to-back in 2015 and 2016, the North division champions still received a solid effort from their starting cast.
Lyles finished with 15 points, six rebounds and four blocks. The 6-foot-8 athletic forward has such a unique blend of skill and athleticism that our staff continues to be puzzled how he still does not have a Division I offer.
Simmons finished with 17 points and four assists while Reed Jr added 12 points, five rebounds and four assists of his own. Strickland scored all ten of his points in the first half.
Even in defeat, Beechcroft finished the regular season with an impressive 16-3 record and enters their Division II district bracket as a slight favorite. With a rotation that's almost exclusively made up of seniors, the Cougars offer a strong mix of size and talent that provide an opportunity to make a run beyond a district championship. Their first game is against Hamilton Township on February 23rd.
While the Nubians will prep for a deep run in the Division III tournament, coach Bates, his team and staff should savor the special moment that took place on Saturday. Not only was it the Nubians first league title in 17 years, but the hard-earned championship is a small bit of consolation after the Nubians opportunity to play in the 2021 title game was dashed by a COVID-caused forfeiture.
"We've been grinding and fighting for a long time," Bates said. "It's funny. We've played in three state final fours, but this is only our second time playing in the City League Championship. It's a testament to how tough the City League South division is. To get here back-to-back, it's a testament to our players and coaching staff."
For the first time since 1992-95, there have been four different City League champions over the last four seasons.
After not winning a City League title from 2001-16 (excluding Africentric in 2005), the South division has now won four of the last six.
Cutting down the net in the league championship was the first goal for Africentric's redemption season. Next up? A cut-down net from the district, regional and state tournament, something the Nubians have firmly believed can be achieved since the season began.
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