After a 3-4 start, New Albany has caught fire under first-year head coach Tim Casey. An impressive win over Pickerington North wrapped up an OCC Ohio championship and solidified the Eagles as a sleeper in the postseason.
By Jarrod Ulrey for Press Pros
NEW ALBANY, Ohio – The leader of a seven-member senior class, Braylon Nash and his New Albany boys basketball teammates talked during the preseason about how they believed they had a realistic shot of ending a long league championship drought.
The Eagles got off to just a 3-4 start, but their confidence didn’t waver as they settled into a more disciplined approach under Tim Casey, one of central Ohio’s most accomplished coaches who is in his first season heading the program.
Stringing together a series of defensive performances, like the one they produced during a 56-41 victory over Pickerington North on Friday while celebrating senior night, fueled that conviction.
That win was New Albany’s 13th in a row and landed the program the outright Ohio Capital Conference Ohio Division championship – its first league title since 2016 and 11th overall.
“When we struggled a little bit early (in the season), I never lost confidence in this group,” Casey said. “League titles are always the goal at the beginning of the year, and I told people that these guys are good. The biggest thing we struggled with early is when things went against us, we kind of got down a little bit. Once we understood that you fight until the end, we got a couple big wins and it was like the ah-ha moment that we can win every game. That’s how we’ve played.”
Casey, who picked up his 500th career victory Jan. 19 and has 506 for his career, has his team enjoying a turnaround season at 16-4 overall after winning just nine games a season ago. The Eagles are 7-2 in the league but already have clinched the outright title heading into their league finale Feb. 16 at Westerville Central.
Casey won nine league titles in 22 seasons at Upper Arlington but was not retained at the end of last season.
New Albany earned a season sweep of North, which dropped to 12-7 overall and 5-4 in the league.
“The thing that’s special is that we did it for all of our seniors,” junior guard Miles Jackson said. “We worked so hard this whole year and we just came together, meshed together and made it happen. This year, we started off kind of rough, but after Christmas, we got it going and we’ve stepped it up.”
One of the defining moments of New Albany’s clinching victory came early in the second half.
With the Eagles leading 24-19 heading into the break, North junior standout guard Arness Lawson turned a steal into a layup with 6 minutes, 4 seconds left in the third quarter and then scored off a pass from junior guard Favor McFadden 23 seconds later to cut the lead to 1.
New Albany responded, however, with a 3-pointer by Nash to start a 9-1 run and led 33-25 heading into the final period.
The Eagles were up 37-30 when the Panthers’ bench was whistled for a technical foul with 3:55 remaining. Nash hit both free throws, and both he and New Albany sophomore guard Marco Mattucci followed with 3-pointers as their team extended the lead to 45-30 with 3:04 to go.
“They’re tough, well-coached, and very disciplined on defense and offense actually,” North coach Jason Bates said. “They’re going to be one of the tougher teams to beat (in the coming Division I district tournament). We probably played our worst two games against them.
“Every time we got going, (Nash) made a 3. He’s very difficult to defend, especially when they’re making shots. Miles Jackson had 14 (points) in the first half, so we had to make a shift, and after that, it was Nash. To win the OCC-Ohio, you have to deserve to win it and you’ve got to play well against these teams to win your league.”
North has just one key senior but stayed in the league title race all year led by the play of Lawson, who was limited to seven first-half points and finished with 19 while being guarded mostly by Mattucci.
“We work a lot on our pack line defense, sitting in the paint and making (Lawson) shoot those pull-ups and not getting to the rim,” Nash said. “It’s about the little things we do in practice. It all pays off in the end, and that pulls us together.”
Jackson and Nash both finished with 18 points for the Eagles, who have given up an average of 44.8 points during their current winning streak.
“We really defend at a high level,” Casey said. “They’re doing such a good job, and it’s been pretty consistent all year long. We don’t do much of anything but play straight man. My philosophy is that you can’t be good at everything so you pick one thing and that’s what you hang your hat on.
“(Lawson is) capable, so athletic and so talented, but I thought we wore him out. Marco did a hell of a job on him and we team-defended really well. We have a couple guys that don’t score much, but they’re really good role guys, and in high school basketball, when you have a couple guys that sacrifice a little bit themselves, that’s pretty special.”