Wildcats rally past Patriots in district final

Newark boys basketball coach Jeff Quackenbush said he wasn’t sure how many lives his Wildcats used in Saturday’s Division I district final against second-seeded Olentangy Liberty, but they have to be close to their ninth by now.

Down seven toward the end of the third quarter, the 11th seeded Wildcats bridged the third and fourth with a 19-2 run to take control on the way to a 57-48 win over the Patriots Saturday afternoon at Ohio Dominican University.

“We finally made some shots,” Quackenbush said of the late-game surge. “Like any high school team in a district final, they were pretty anxious the first quarter, quarter and a half. I thought we settled down a little bit in the second half — we made some shots there in the fourth to get the lead — and it’s whoever has the lead toward the end because they don’t miss many free throws, and we didn’t, either, once they started fouling.”

For Liberty, which was ranked fifth in the final AP state poll, things started to unravel late in the third … just as the Patriots started to build a cushion.

“We were up seven with 1:20 left in the third and James (Hummell) went in and scored, and they called the charge,” Liberty coach Greg Nossaman said. “That kinda swung everything right there. We would’ve been up nine. They would’ve got the ball and, make or miss, we would’ve held it for the last shot, with our possession arrow going into the fourth quarter … it just didn’t work out.”

Down 20-17 early in the third, Tyler Kropp and Hummell connected on back-to-back hoops to give the Patriots a 21-20 edge with 5:23 left in the quarter. Kropp then followed up a hoop from Grant Burkholder with a bucket off a nice inbound pass from Alex Okuley, then buried a three-pointer before Jackson Mikola connected from deep to balloon the lead to 29-22 with 1:20 to play in the period.

Then … the charge changed everything. Burkholder hit a floater and Braylon Morris kissed a runner off the glass to pull the Wildcats within three, 29-26, heading into the final eight minutes of action.

Morris tied things up with a three to start the fourth, Burkholder sank a couple free throws and, after a Hummell hoop, Austin Rose and Drew Oberholtzer scored back-to-back buckets to snag even more momentum. As the lead swelled, Mikola, Hummell and Matt Wilson hit triples to keep Liberty within striking distance, but Newark was able to seal it at the charity stripe, where it went 23-for-28 for the game.

“They run good stuff,” Nossaman said of the Wildcats. “Quack does a nice job. They play good defense, switch screens and get the ball to the guys that need to score. (Steele) Meister and Burkholder were the two who pretty much shot it, but when we started to double them, they kicked it to Morris or Kalen Winbush and they knocked down a couple shots. They’re solid, under control and play seven guys. We knew what they were going to do, but things just kind of got away from us.”

Burkholder finished with a game-best 25 points for Newark, which will take on Olentangy Orange in Wednesday’s regional semifinal back at ODU. Morris backed Burkholder with eight points while Meister and Winbush had six apiece.

Kropp and Mikola led Liberty with 13 points each while Hummell added 12 and Okuley chipped in a game-high five assists.