On the heels of a winless OCC Central season, Upper Arlington circled the wagons and knocked off defending champion Olentangy Liberty in what could prove to be a huge confidence builder for the program.
Powell, OH – On rare occasions in practice when the Upper Arlington boys basketball team is lacking in energy, focus, discipline, crispness and teamwork – hallmarks of the tradition-rich program – first-year coach Joe Bills delivers his players a blunt lesson in recent history.
After the Golden Bears went on the road and knocked off defending champion Olentangy Liberty 58-50 in an Ohio Capital Conference Central Division game Friday, Bills apparently will have to find a new way to taunt/motivate his players.
“Don’t get me wrong; we’ve still got a lot to improve on,” Bills said. “But to come here to Olentangy Liberty on a night when the chips were stacked against us and come away with a win is a real confidence builder heading to the holidays. It’s a tribute to the stability of a program these guys have been part of their whole lives.”
UA was coming off an atypically subpar season in which it went 9-14 overall and 0-10 in the Central. That led to the stunning dismissal in April of coach Tim Casey, who went 355-159 with five district championships, nine OCC titles and a state runner-up during a 22-year run. Casey, a 1981 UA grad who still teaches in the school district and has a son, Cal, on the team, is now head coach at New Albany.
Bills, who assisted Casey for six seasons and brought head coaching experience from Fisher Catholic and DeSales, was hired to take over.
Absent for the early-season matchup due to injury were 6-foot-7 senior center Lakin Rex and 6-2 junior Weston Gregg, a valuable backup post player. That made the task of shutting down Olentangy Liberty 6-9 junior Tyler Kropp, who Bills called “the best big man in central Ohio,” even more daunting.
Starting four guards and a 6-8 swingman in sophomore Alex Smith, the Golden Bears came out in a 2-3 zone defense with a player always sagging on Kropp in hopes of keeping him from catching the ball or moving. UA rarely strayed from this ploy.
“It was like we had never seen a zone before,” Liberty coach Greg Nossaman said. “Our guys didn’t attack the gaps and seemed to think the only way to beat it was to shoot three-pointers. Hats off to (UA). They came in with a great strategy and we didn’t respond. From where I sat, there was no atmosphere, no enthusiasm, no effort, no energy … and that’s especially troubling since we probably played our best game of the year three days ago (in a 58-49 win at Newark).”
Upper Arlington (3-2, 1-1) shot out to a 7-0 lead before Liberty (5-2, 1-1) finally got its footing and made it close. It was tied 21-all at halftime.
But Liberty’s shooting woes continued in a lackluster start to open the second half and UA cashed in, settling into a comfortable tempo and working for high percentage shots. A tip-follow by Smith capped a 19-2 run for the Golden Bears, forcing the desperate Patriots into a trapping and pressing mode. That only fed the fire for UA, which thrives on making the extra pass and setting back-cuts for easy baskets.
“You know, with their post players gone maybe it changed the dynamic for both teams,” Nossaman said. “They had five guys on the floor who could handle the ball and pass it, and that became a big advantage for them as the game went along.”
Liberty closed the 14-point deficit to 51-46 with 2:57 remaining, but UA went to a spread offense and successfully salted away the win.
Zach Corna scored 15 points, Ciarnan Moloney 12, and Nate Schoeny and Smith 11 each to pace balanced UA.
Kropp finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, but many of the rebounds came on his own misses. JR Hocutt added 11 points with three three-point shots. Kropp, who missed the first 11 games last season to injury, is the only starter returning from the Patriots’ 21-4, 9-1 team.
“Smith’s length made it very difficult for Kropp to get it in good spots,” Bills said. “That was our main objective, to keep him from getting the ball. Schoney’s passing was excellent and Zach made plays all over the floor. A lot of guys contributed. The way we played tonight was fun to watch.”
Corna, who hit a three-pointer and a floater to stretch the lead in the fourth quarter, echoed Bills’ remarks.
“It was a great team effort for us,” said Corna. “I’m sure we had a lot of assists, which is something we take a lot of pride in. Getting that first win in league play means a lot to us and it’s something we can definitely build on.”
Schoeny pointed out that UA has just three seniors on the roster and building chemistry was a focal point in an offseason of soul searching.
“What happened last year was a big motivation for us,” he said. “Our pride took a hit. We came close against Hilliard Bradley (falling 56-55 in overtime) in our league opener and this hopefully sets us up to contend in the league.”
The OCC Central is brutal with defending Central champ Olentangy Orange, Bradley, Liberty, Dublin Coffman, UA and Hilliard Davidson being tough outs on any given night.