Heading into the Division I boys basketball state semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday against third-ranked Cincinnati Walnut Hills (27-1) at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, the Rogers Rams have a moment to reflect.
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They can wonder how much differently things might have ended if they had let the low point in their season become their legacy.
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After having played perhaps the toughest nonleague schedule in Ohio, the Rams entered what was supposed to be an easy romp in the Feb. 15 City League playoff semifinals at Waite against a Start team they had already blitzed 101-83 and 70-49 in league play.
In what seemed to be a simple step en route to defending their City championship, Rogers (10-0 CL) was upset 54-53 by the Spartans, who then beat Bowsher for the title.
It could have been a bitter pill had the Rams actually swallowed it. Instead, they spit it out and moved on.
“After we took that loss to Start a lot of people thought we were going to fold up,” Rams senior guard Clemmye Owens said. “But we knew that making a state run would make people forget all about that loss.
“We just started over. We put it behind us and got ready for a new season. We were eight games from being where we wanted to be [in state final], and we just took it one game at a time. Now we’re going to the final four.”
With six tournament wins, Rogers (20-7) is set for its second final-four appearance in three years under coach Earl Morris.
The 2011 Rams made it to the Division II semifinals, falling 68-66 to Dayton Thurgood Marshall after having a chance to tie or win that game with a shot in the final seconds.
Scoring 14 and 11 points, respectively, that 2011 semifinal loss were then-sophomore guards Owens and Tony Kynard.
This battle-tested backcourt duo — which will continue together on scholarship at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida — return to Columbus this year leading a Cinderella ride.
Rogers is the only unranked team in the semifinal field, and is the smallest school still alive in Division I.
“Being the underdog helps us work harder,” Kynard said. “It takes some of the stress off too. We just want to go out there and play hard, and try to beat the teams that are above us.
“We want to show everybody that we can be one of those teams too. We just weren’t able to be ranked. That [Start] loss was tough, but we needed that. We were getting lazy and relaxed.”
With a boys enrollment of just 381 (grades 10-12), Rogers was also the smallest school among the state’s final 16 in last week’s regionals.
The largest D-I team in the semifinals is eighth-ranked Mentor (23-5), which has 999 boys in grades 10-12. Mentor faces top-ranked Columbus Northland (28-0) in Friday’s other semifinal. Northland has 430 boys, Walnut Hills 534.
“Yes, we do have something to prove,” Owens said. “A lot of people don’t believe we can go down there and win because we’re not a ranked team. But the people that are with us every day in the gym believe we can.”
Rogers makes no David-and-Goliath excuses in advance, and they care little about rankings. It is a positive mindset that starts at the top with Morris.
“No matter how many students you’ve got, you can only put five on the floor at the same time,” Morris said. “We don’t care. We’ve been the underdogs the whole way through. There’s no pressure on us.
“They’re the ones ranked at the top. We’re just going down there to have fun. Nobody but us expected us to be where we are right now.”
In addition to its 71-69 season-opening loss to No. 1 Northland (played at Pickerington), Rogers also lost at second-ranked Norwalk (70-55), at No. 5 St. John’s (81-74), and at home against Ohio’s top-ranked D-II team, Thurgood Marshall (77-73).
“In a lot of our [nonleague] games we’d be up but then just couldn’t finish those games,” Kynard said. “Now we’re starting to finish games. We’re making more shots and tougher shots.”
Added Morris: “I’m very proud of this group. We made a statement before the season. We were going to open up against Northland. We told the kids, ‘We’re going to start in Columbus and we’re going to end in Columbus. That was our statement all year, and we backed that up.”
The ever-confident Owens was a believer from the outset.
“That was something that was said our first day of practice, and that’s the slogan we stayed with the whole year,” he said. “Now, we just want to finish our season up strong.
“Being there two years ago, we’ve been in this situation before. We don’t want to fall short like we did then. We want to finish off strong.”
After the Start loss closed its regular season at 14-7 overall, Rogers opened the tourney run by bashing Waite (91-44) and Southview (74-44) in sectional play.
The Rams then pulled the upset of the season in northwest Ohio at the district semifinals at Savage Arena, toppling 20-4 St. John’s, 66-55. That defeat ended the sterling prep career of Titans standout and two-time D-I state player-of-the-year Marc Loving well ahead of expectations.
Two nights after beating the Three Rivers Athletic Conference champions, the Rams thumped another TRAC power, ninth-ranked Central Catholic, 60-39.
Rogers survived a late comeback bid by Northern Lakes League champion Anthony Wayne (20-5) in a 68-62 regional semifinal. The Rams punched their ticket to Columbus by edging Brecksville-Broadview Heights (23-4) in the regional final, 63-61 in overtime.
“It was a great motivator for us when we lost to Start,” Morris said. “Our heads had got big. We thought all we had to do was step on the floor and we could beat somebody. We haven’t had any problems with the kids since then.
“Being the underdog — when you go in against St. John’s, Central and Anthony Wayne — that’s motivation enough.”
On the season, the 6-foot Owens leads the Rams in scoring at 17.0 points per game, and also contributes 3.3 assists, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.1 steals. Kynard, a 6-1 point guard, averages 15.4 points, 6.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.5 steals.
The pair first played together nine years ago on a Police Athletic League team and were teammates at Deveaux Junior High.
Adding depth to the Rams’ balanced starting lineup have been 6-5 senior forward Tribune Dailey (11.1 points, 9.0 rebounds), and 6-1 senior guard-forward DeVonte Pratt (11.0 points, 5.6 rebounds).
“We were determined not to lose again,” Dailey said. “The way we came out for that [Start] game it was like we already had [the championship] in our hands, like it was given to us. Ever since then we haven’t thought like that.
“Now it’s, ‘Play hard, play smart, play as a team, and have fun.’ That’s our motivation every game. We’re just going to go out and play our game and try to get victories.”
Pratt played briefly on the varsity as a sophomore in 2010-11 before a broken arm ended his season.
“It was disappointing,” he said of missing the 2011 tourney run. “But I was just happy that my team was making it that far. They kept going and they played good.
“It’s great to go again because I missed it that year sitting out. Now I get a chance to run with my family.”
Rounding out the starting five of late has been 6-7 junior center Fadil Robinson, a defensive and rebounding specialist who adds 4.2 points and 6.2 boards.
The sixth man has been 5-11 senior forward Keandre Gilmer, a reliable inside force who contributes 7.5 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Also adding inside presence are 6-5 junior Alejandro Williams and 6-3 senior Kurtis Jeffery.
Cincinnati Walnut Hills is the champion of the Eastern Cincinnati Conference (12-0 conference record), and the Eagles are making their first trip to the state semifinals.
Their all-senior starting lineup is led by 6-9 center Isaiah Johnson (17.6 points per game), who will play in college at the Akron, and 6-5 guard-forward Dontonio Wingfield, Jr. (17.1), who will play at Ohio.
Rounding out the lineup are 5-10 guard Ricardo Hill, Jr. (6.6), 5-8 guard Khari Burton (5.8), and 6-1 guard Sterling Gilmore (5.6 points).
The Eagles’ lone loss came was 61-54 at Huntington (W.Va.) Prep. Walnut Hills beat 2011 D-I state champion Cincinnati LaSalle 50-46 in a regional final.