REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio -- For the first 20 minutes of Friday's league game, the second of two matches between Newark and Reynoldsburg, it looked the part of two top 5 power ranked teams locked in a fierce battle with a quality win on the line.
The Raiders trailed by a point with under 2:40 to go in the third when sophomore Xavier McKinney hit a three-pointer that all of a sudden sparked a severely lopsided Reynoldsburg run. A 25-5 difference Raiders difference lasted until the final minutes when Newark's reserves entered the game. Reynoldsburg dribbled out the final seconds to a tune of a 55-43 win.
Newark and Reynoldsburg initially traded blows, as they exchanged the lead 11 times and were tied at six different moments. The Raiders were a bit hampered by the absence of sixth man and Division I recruit, junior Toby Nwokolo, while lead scorer junior Jordan Fisher sat most of the second period with two fouls.
The Wildcats got a fast start from their star forward, senior Steele Meister, along with additional production from sophomore guards Jake Quackenbush and Ty Gilbert. But the Raiders made an emphasis in the second-half to limit Meister, along with junior wing Braylon Morris, from touches and quickly had their defense turn into offense which overwhelmed and took Newark out of their element.
"Defense is our biggest principle, we're really big on that," McKinney said after the game. "We said that if we stop their two top players, we can get that dub."
The Raiders scored their final eight points in the third quarter, with under two and half minutes, off four steals. A 10-0 run to start the final period had indicated a tide had quickly turned.
It was an impressive response from the Raiders, who suffered a 45-41 defeat to the Wildcats on December 22nd, their only loss to a Central Ohio team so far this season. Head coach Andrew Moore has one of the area's deepest and more talented teams and that depth was on display Friday.
Fisher finished with a game-high 19 points, all but four that were in the second half. Senior Noah Smith scored 11, which included three triples. Bowens and McKinney finished with ten and nine points, respectively.
"We have a really deep team and a lot of scorers," Bowens said, who also had five rebounds and two blocks. "But when we work on our defense, and tonight that showed, that when we play defense we can score whenever."
That defense held Meister to a hard-fought 16 points and Morris to just six, which came off two triples early in the third. Gilbert added seven points, while Quackenbush finished with six, all in the first quarter.
The win for Reynoldsburg (11-5, 6-1) now puts them tied with Newark (14-2, 6-1) for first place of the OCC-Buckeye. Only a Raiders rematch against Pickerington Central stands as a game that could likely impact the standings. That put an extra emphasis on the Raiders win on Friday, as they can achieve an accomplishment that hasn't occurred in over a decade.
"We haven't won a conference title since 2013, we definitely want to get it this year," McKinney said.
"We really want to come out and make history this year, that's why we came out with a fire today and got this dub," Bowens added.
For more on Reynoldsburg's significant win, check out the 5 Keys To The Game:
1. Defensive Difference - If you're wondering how Newark earned their near-undefeated record, look no further than their defense, a Jeff Quackenbush staple as they held all but one of their opponents to under 60 points so far this season. The Wildcats came out strong on the defensive end again, contesting Reynoldsburg and forcing them into difficult shots. The Raiders mostly did the same, but something really clicked halfway through the third. It was like the Raiders put a spell on the Cats, how they bullied their way into steals and forced Newark into uncharacteristic turnovers and shots off the mark. There aren't many teams in Ohio that have the talent and athletes of the Raiders. The shots may not always fall, but Reynoldsburg learned on Friday that if they turn their defense up to a 10, they are at their best.
2. Depth Difference - Not only did the Raiders defense stand out, but so did their depth. With four players that have received multiple Division I offers, it's hard to not spotlight their usual highlight-worthy performances. But the Raiders spark came from their additional depth that can create their own challenging mismatches for opponents. Smith made his presence felt on his three-ball, while junior point guard Damon Griffin had tremendous moments passing the ball. Senior Se'Ron Calloway-White added quality minutes from the bench with six points and two steals. These guys have the ability to make Reynoldsburg an even more dangerous team.
3. .... but the Big Names Came Out, Too - There's a reason why the Raiders have gotten a lot of visits from regional mid-major programs and any given night, you can expect their scholarship-level players to make an impression. On Friday, junior Fisher and sophomores Bowens and McKinney all had impactful performances. Fisher was able to get into takeover mode, particularly in the second half, and displayed the impressive offensive bag he's shown off all season towards his 19 points. Bowens continued to be an athletic and efficient presence in the post while McKinney is arguably the Raiders' best two-way player. The six-foot-two guard showed a good physicality on the ball and around the rim. All have room to improve, but there aren't many trios like this group.
4. Strength of Steele - While the final score indicated a disappointing result for Newark, it's still worth commending the play of their do-it-all senior Steele Meister. A Findlay commit, Meister is as equally skilled as he is a competitor. The lefty can score from anywhere on the court and uses his quarterback vision with zips across the court, often from a double team. Meister is undisputedly one of the best players in the area, a likely First Team All-District selection. There'll be moments come tournament time where Meister will need a little more support than he received on Friday, however the Wildcats record speaks for itself, as does their history in the tournament. With a guy like Meister at the helm, their ceiling can be high.
5. Division and District Outlook - Friday's game had two significant aspects on the line. Not only has it allowed for Reynoldsburg to also control their destiny for at least a tie of the OCC-Buckeye, but hefty RPI points should be earned to help with their tournament seeding. Based on both of their resume's, they currently are top 5 teams in the region. Until further notice, they continue to be on the short list of not only a district title, but the opportunity to win a regional.