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Today’s Division I boys basketball district semifinals at Savage Arena can make a case for being Ohio’s most formidable four-team grouping at this level.
Three of those teams — all from the Three Rivers Athletic Conference — were ranked among the top 10 in the final Associated Press state poll. The fourth team, Rogers, may have played the most challenging nonleague schedule in the state.
The Rams (16-7) will tip off the semifinals at 6:15 p.m. against fifth-ranked St. John’s Jesuit (20-3), the TRAC champion and the district’s top seed. The Titans beat visiting Rogers 81-74 on Jan. 29.
In the 8 p.m. semifinal, ninth-ranked Central Catholic (18-5) battles 10th-ranked TRAC runner-up Whitmer (18-5) for the third time. The Panthers beat Central two times, rallying from a 19-6 halftime deficit Jan. 11 to win 39-30 at Central, and surviving for a 66-57 overtime win Feb. 15 at Whitmer.
The winners meet for the district championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.
All four schools have reached the D-I state semifinals within the last four seasons.
Whitmer fell 45-40 to Pickerington Central in the state final last March.
Central and Rogers both advanced to the state semifinals in 2011, with the Irish being edged 48-46 by eventual champion Cincinnati LaSalle in D-I, and Rogers taking a tough 68-66 loss to Dayton Thurgood Marshall in D-II.
The last St. John’s trip to state was in 2009, when it fell 55-41 to Cincinnati Princeton in a D-I semifinal.
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For 34th-year coach Ed Heintschel, who earlier this season became the 10th boys coach in Ohio history to reach 600 wins, that was the sixth time he had taken the Titans to the final four. His 1993, 1996, and 2004 teams each lost in D-I finals.
This district is also loaded with talented individuals.
Marc Loving (20.8 points per game, 8.2 rebounds) of St. John’s was a D-I state co-player of the year last year and has signed to play at Ohio State.
Teammate Austin Gardner (15.6 points) will play at the University of Findlay, and he is well-complemented in the backcourt by junior Anthony Glover (9.8 points).
“We have to shoot free throws better,” Rogers coach Earl Morris said of the Rams’ rematch with St. John’s. “We were 7 for 19 in that [Jan. 29] game. We have to push the ball and get them out of their half-court game.
“Loving scored a lot of points in the first half before we neutralized him, so we’re going to have to do some different things to control him. But, basically, we have to push the ball up the floor. We cannot play a half-court game with them.”
Rogers’ well-balanced starting lineup includes two guards who have signed to play in college at Bethune-Cookman — City League co-player of the year Clemmye Owens (16.7 points) and fellow CL first-team selection Tony Kynard (14.9 points).
They are complemented by seniors Tribune Dailey (11.6 points, 8.6 rebounds) and De’Vonte Pratt (10.4 points), who were each All-City second-teamers.
“We’ve got to defend their perimeter,” Heintschel said. “They are really strong on the perimeter, and they rebound the ball very well at both ends of the floor. So, we need to block them out at the offensive end, and our shot selection will be important too.
“We kind of played full-throttle with them the last time. I’m not sure we want to do that this time. I’m not saying we’re going to slow it down, but we’re going to try to vary the pace.”
Whitmer features Wisconsin-bound Nigel Hayes (15.5 points, 8.8 rebounds), an All-Ohio second-team selection in 2011 and 2012. Findlay-bound guard Ricardo Smith (16.4 points) and third-year starting senior guard Luke Hickey bring additional big-game experience.
Whitmer coach Bruce Smith is wary of playing Central for a third time.
“The danger is that they’re good,” Smith said. “You look at the first two games and try to accentuate what you did well and what worked for you. They obviously hurt us in certain areas in both games. Playing against that kind of quality is a lot of fun.”
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Central Catholic also has some high-profile athletes who will continue in college at other sports.
Scoring and rebounding leader Keith Towbridge (11.5 points, 9.8 rebounds), a center, will take his agile 6-foot-5, 250-pound frame to play football at Louisville.
DeShone Kizer, a 6-5, 210-pound junior guard, has received many offers to play quarterback at the next level, most notably the one he got Monday from national champion Alabama.
Each played key roles in Central’s D-II state football championship run in the fall.
Deontae Cole, a 6-5 senior (9.7 points) who will play basketball at Northern Kentucky, and Nate Harris, a 6-6 junior forward, give the Irish a strong lineup.
“We have to play 32 minutes,” Central coach Jim Welling said of his team’s third chance against Whitmer. “We had some spurts in both games where, offensively, we completely went into the tank.
“Any time you lose it hurts, so I can’t say one was more difficult [to deal with] than the other. The best thing for us was to get the [first-round tournament] bye, and to have a week where we didn’t have to play two games in one week.
“Just to take a deep breath and get our thoughts back was good for everybody. We were able to regroup and talk about the next step.”
While St. John’s, Whitmer and Central were battling it out with home-and-home meetings in TRAC play, Rogers was busy getting some major quality nonleague tests.
Outside of the loss at St. John’s, the Rams had road losses to Ohio’s top two ranked D-I teams — unbeatens No. 1 Columbus Northland (71-69) and No. 2 Norwalk (70-55).
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Rogers also fell to the state’s top-ranked D-II team, Dayton Thurgood Marshall (77-73), at home and dropped games at Chandler Park (Harper Woods, Mich.) and to Chicago Hyde Park at a holiday invitational.
But the loss that hurt the most and may also serve to provide the best motivation, came Feb. 15 in the City League semifinals at Waite, where they were upset 54-53 by eventual championship Start. The Rams were 10-0 in the CL entering the league playoffs.
“That refocused us all the way back,” Morris said. “We went back to the basics, and the kids are focused. That was one of the things that helped us get focused, because we just thought we could walk on the floor [in City League] and beat anybody.
“This is the toughest schedule we’ve had since I’ve been coaching. We’ve been there, so now it’s up to us to go out there and play.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.