HILLIARD, Ohio -- In an atmosphere that rivaled the feel of a district title game, Olentangy Orange overcame a second-half deficit to capture an outright OCC-Central title with a 51-47 win at Hilliard Bradley.
The Pioneers trailed by eight points early in the third when Bradley senior Cade Norris connected on an and-one drive, as he assisted or scored on seven quick points to start the period. Looking to counter momentum, head coach Anthony Calo switched his defense to a 1-3-1 that took the Jaguars out of their usual gameplan and sparked a 12-2 Pioneer run.
"We've never played a 1-3-1 in my 13 years of coaching," Calo said after the game. "Bradley is very prepared and plays very hard, so we thought to try something to throw them out of their rhythm. We had to do something."
A Levi Davis three to cap the third quarter gave the Pioneers their first lead since late in the second period, which they would hold onto for the remainder of the game. The Jaguars would get within three points with just under twenty seconds left, but made Pioneer free throws and strong defense prevented a last chance comeback.
"All year we've been extremely resilient between the ears," Calo said. "Down eight, we believe we're a resilient team and to show it on the road, with a sellout crowd, against a league rival, it's a gusty comeback."
A team effort throughout, there was an unmistakable difference made by the sensational play of Orange junior Devin Brown. The six-foot-five wing, who has recently picked up three in-state Division I offers, delivered the type of two-way performance that suggests he's grown into one of the more talented players in the area, regardless of class.
Brown finished with a team-high 20 points, 11 of which came in the final period. He added eight rebounds, four blocks and three assists to his stat sheet, which did not include his high-end defense on Bradley's Norris. The junior took the responsibility of challenging the Jaguars' lead scorer, a commit to Illinois State. Norris had his usual moments, but attempts were hard earned and came with some frustrations.
"[Cade] is really good," Brown said postgame in acknowledgment of his opponent. "But I just tried to do my best to make every touch hard, get length on the rim."
It felt like Brown rarely had a bad possession and his offensive touches were indeed hard for Bradley defend. Brown would show off an elite feel with the ball, with an ability to pull up in traffic and show some range behind the arc, with two triples. Defensively his length and athleticism paired well with his hard-nosed ambition that set a tone for the Pioneers.
"He is the perfect leader for our program because he wants to be very connected, he's a very loving kid that can be humble and confident" Calo said. "He can attack the rim, he can pass the ball, he can shoot, he's an excellent defender. There's not a true weakness to his game. He's a complete basketball player, in my opinion."
More Than Brown
While Brown was the game's MVP, the Pioneers aren't the region's top ranked team based on his game alone. All season long, Orange has had tremendous support from a strongly gelled unit that made notable impacts on Friday.
Junior Keegan Knupp, a six-foot-three Eastern Michigan baseball commit, was a key clog in Orange's defensive turnaround in the second half. Knupp would collect three steals, two of which were near half-court as he single handedly picked two steals credit to his impressive length. He finished with ten points and nine rebounds.
Davis added nine points and sophomore Treyton Schroeder scored five, as both guards showed their grit against a tough Bradley backcourt.
"Unsung heroes, that's a good term to use for guys like Keegan and Schroeder," Calo said. "They're not in the headlines as much, but those guys are absolutely critical for us."
In recognition of their senior class, the Jaguars started four final-year players that all had their moments despite the defeat. In addition to his 20 points, Norris added four rebounds and two assists. Jeb Bischoff showed off his quick trigger with three made triples towards nine points, while Andrew Lamb and Duncan Spalding combined for nine as well.
Winners of six straight previously, the Jaguars still looked the part of a contending team in Central Ohio. All but one of Bradley's five losses have been within four points. Norris is a contender for regional player of the year and has a handful of teammates able to maximize their role.
No Longer Undefeated, No Problem?
As Olentangy Orange remained one of just a few teams in the state to be undefeated, the age-old question of "can a loss be good for you?" continued to float around the Orange program.
Calo admitted he's not one to think a team needs a loss to release some pressure, but after the Pioneers took their first defeat, a three-point decision to Pickerington Central on February 3, the demeanor and focus of his team led to an admission he made the wrong assumption.
"I consider myself the type of person where, if I'm wrong, I can have some humility. I didn't think we needed a loss. I was wrong," Calo said. "We looked at film, we looked at where our effort could be better. And our players agreed. The burn of a loss burns a little hotter, but it refocused us. It's been good, we've played harder since."
Check Goal #1 off for the Pioneers, as they wrap up the OCC-Central crown with still a game left to be played. Expect the Pioneers to earn the top seed on Sunday's tournament draw for the district tournament. After that, Orange will get the usual stiff test from rival Olentangy Liberty on February 16 and cap their season with a non-league game against DeSales on February 20.
The Jaguars hope to finish their season on a good note with three winnable games against Dayton Dunbar (February 13), Dublin Coffman (Feb 16) and Hilliard Darby (Feb 23).