Steve Blackledge
Steve Blackledge

A seven-time Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association writer of the year, Blackledge spent the final 34 years of a four-decade career as the chief prep beat writer for the Columbus Dispatch. A Delaware, Ohio native, Blackledge graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1982 with degrees in journalism and communications. He served as sports editor of the Wilmington News-Journal for three-plus years. He also worked at the Lake County Telegraph and the Delaware Gazette. In addition to the prep beat, Blackledge has covered the Browns, Indians, Reds, Bengals, Columbus Crew and various Ohio State sports.

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Gahanna and Westerville Central advance in boys regional play to set up an OCC showdown Saturday between the #1 and #2 seeds in the Central District.

By Steve Blackledge for Press Pros

Westerville, OH – To heck with all the typical coach-speak about taking each game one at a time.

For about five weeks, the players, coaches and fans of the Gahanna and Westerville Central boys basketball teams have deep down pined for a big-stakes rubber match. And now the Ohio Capital Conference Ohio Division rivals have that dream matchup, with a trip to the state final four on the line.

Veteran columnist Steve Blackledge writes central Ohio prep sports for Press Pros Magazine.

Gahanna used its size, length and depth to repel Olentangy Liberty 47-39 in a Division I regional semifinal Thursday, while Westerville Central turned in a superlative defense effort to beat Hilliard Bradley 56-44 in the nightcap at Westerville South.

That sets up a 1 p.m. showdown Saturday at brand spanking new Ed Calo Court between the Central District’s Nos. 1 and 2 seeded teams, both of who were ranked in the top-10 all season long. Gahanna won the first meeting 56-55 on Jan. 20, and Westerville Central was victorious 65-64 just 16 days later.

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“We try to keep these things inside, but after we took the second game against Gahanna everybody starting talking about having the trilogy come in a regional final,” Central senior guard Landon Tillman said with a grin. “I think it’s a matchup everyone wants to see.”

Warhawks coach Kevin Martin seemed more concerned about preparing for a game just 39 hours away.

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“Well, I know both teams went to the seeding meeting hoping that we’d get the chance to get to this point, but the Central District is so deep and so strong, you don’t except the bracket to go according to form,” he said. “Having played a pair of one-point games, the familiarity we have for each other takes a little of the pressure of preparing in so little time. I just it’s going to come down to who makes the better adjustments and who simply plays better.”

Westerville Central’s Tasos Cook drives toward the basket while Hilliard Bradley’s A.J. Mirgon (30) and Cade Norris (5) defend in a Division I regional semifinal March 11, 2021, at Westerville South.

Gahanna (22-2) made a handful of key plays in the final four minutes to finally put away pesky Olentangy Liberty (20-6).

While the Lions may have been regarded as a solid favorite in this matchup, veteran coach Tony Staib got the news Wednesday that two of his players, one a starter, would be sidelined due to COVID-19 protocol. He already had lost a key starter in 6-4 forward Jarius Jones to a season-ending torn ACL during the second Westerville Central matchup.

“Fortunately, we’re a deep team, and that helped pull us through a tough battle tonight,” Staib said.

The game featured 10 lead changes and six ties.

In his first start ever, Lions junior guard Brendan Raymond made three game-changing plays in the final four minutes.

He stole the ball near midcourt and fed Maceo Williams for an easy layup to give Gahanna a three-point lead. Following a Liberty turnover, Sean Jones whipped a cross-court pass to Raymond, who hit a three-point shot to make it 37-33. He then inbounded to Williams under the basket for a layup that made it 39-33.

“All I was thinking about was doing my role,” Raymond said. “Sure, we have three guys out, but our bench is good. The longer I was in, the more confident I got.”

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The Patriots pulled back within three twice on back-to-back three-pointers by Cooper Davis and Henry Hinkle, but Gahanna hit five free throws in the final 1:12 to prevail.

Jones had 16 points and Williams 14 to pace Gahanna, which outscored Liberty 10-2 at the free throw line.

Hilliard Bradley’s Cade Norris shoots while Westerville Central’s Brad Leonard defends in a Division I regional semifinal March 11, 2021, at Westerville South.

“It’s a next-man-up mentality for us,” said Jones, a first-team All-Ohioan in 2020 as a sophomore. “We knew the plays the were running because of our preparation. We just needed something to get us going late in the game, and a bunch of guys made some plays.”

Gahanna also was a No. 1 seed in 2020, but lost to Walnut Ridge 52-47 in a district final. This will mark the Lions’ fourth regional final, the only title coming when they shocked nationally-ranked Northland in 2010.

“I was really happy with how our defense played,” Staib said. “Liberty runs a lot of great stuff and they were killing us on the offensive boards in the first half. I think the outcome was decided by a few effort plays late in the game. Raymond definitely made a couple of those.”

Davis had 13 points and Hinkle 11 to pace Liberty.

“The kids left it all on the floor and did exactly what they were supposed to do, considering us being undersized and all the athletic advantages they had,” Patriots coach Greg Nossaman said.

Westerville Central (21-2) pieced together a blistering 15-2 run over a seven-minute span of the middle quarters to down Bradley (18-5), the district’s No. 3 seed.

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Tillman, the hero of the Warhawks’ district championship win over Pickerington North with a last-second three-point shot, scored 17 points to lead a balanced effort. Quincy Clark added 13, MJ Davis 12 and Tasos Cook 10.

But where Central shined brightest was on defense, completely frazzling a Bradley team that thrives on ball movement and discipline to get high percentage shots.

“We knew going in that they were really hard to guard, because they use so much movement and screening and shoot it at such a high level,” Martin said. “We didn’t want them to get comfortable behind the three-point line. We did not want to let them get those catch-and-shoot opportunities they thrive on. We made them put the ball on the floor more than they wanted to.

Gahanna’s Sean Jones reacts against Olentangy Liberty in a Division I regional semifinal March 11, 2021, at Westerville South. (photo by John Hulkenberg)

Bradley chopped a 14-point deficit to 44-38 with 2:24 remaining, but the Warhawks easily broke full-court pressure for five breakaway layups the rest of the way. Two turned into emphatic dunks by Cook, the district player of the year.

Wright State-bound senior standout Keaton Norris had 19 points and his younger brother Cade added 12 to pace the Jaguars. Central limited AJ Mirgon to three points, 10 under his average.

“Give Westerville Central a ton of credit,” Bradley coach Brett Norris said. “We were on our heels all night long. We ran things that appeared to be there, but they closed up on us. Athletically, they just didn’t allow us to catch the ball where we want to. Simply put, we didn’t execute and that’s as much their doing as ours. We were forced to play from behind and that’s not how we’re built.”

Both teams were hard-luck victims of the COVID-19 outbreak last March. Bradley already had advanced to a regional final, and Central was awaiting a regional semifinal matchup with Thomas Worthington when the sports world came to a screeching halt.

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