COLUMBUS – Olentangy Orange boys basketball coach Anthony Calo had good reason to believe his team would shoot the ball better than its opposition. After all, he’s got a team full of shooters.
But Drew Ballinger knocked down four 3-pointers in the first quarter and six for the game to lead Newark to a 64-53 win over the Pioneers in a Division I district final Saturday night at the Columbus Convention Center.
“Give them credit – they made the big shots,” Calo said. “We are a great shooting team, but we ran a little cold today, unfortunately.”
Ballinger, who was held scoreless in Newark’s district semifinal win over Walnut Ridge Wednesday night, scored 20 points and added four rebounds.
“We did that on purpose,” Newark coach Jeff Quackenbush joked. “No – Drew’s a great shooter – he just had an off-night. When you’re a sophomore, you’re going to run into nights like that. I’m just so proud that he didn’t let it get to his head. He’s been huge for us all year.”
Keshawn Heard added 14 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and three assists for the ninth-seeded Wildcats (20-6).
Ballinger hit his first to tie the game 8-8 before finding the mark again on the next possession to give Newark an 11-10 lead with 3:21 remaining in the first quarter.
Newark never trailed again as Ballinger followed with a pair of 3-pointers sandwiched around a Heard basket underneath to push the lead to 19-10.
“He was getting open in transition,” Calo said. “I think three of his four came in transition. He did have zero 3s last game, so give him credit for shooting. He came up clutch today. We knew he could shoot the ball and we lost him in transition and that hurt us.”
Bryson Lane stopped the bleeding with a 3-pointer of his own and the Pioneers trailed 19-13 at the end of the first.
Orange trailed by as many as 15 in the first half before Nik Brannon scored the final five points of the half to cut the deficit to 32-22.
Ballinger opened the third with his fifth 3-pointer to extend the lead to 13.
Then, Orange made its move. Lane got hot and scored eight of the team’s first nine points before finding Brannon on the left wing for a 3 to cut it to 35-34 with 2:20 remaining in the third.
“They just spread you out,” Quackenbush said. “(Lane) is going by you whether you pressure him or not. They’re really good offensively – anybody that’s played them knows that.”
Heard pulled down a pair of offensive rebounds and put the second one in to end a near 6-minute drought for the Wildcats.
Andre Irvin hit a 3 with about 1 second left in the quarter to get Orange within 39-37 and drove for a score with 6:35 left in the game to pull the 13th-seeded Pioneers within 43-42.
But they just couldn’t get over the hump.
“Even with a bad-shooting night – I’m super-proud of our kids,” Calo said. “They fought like crazy. We’re a great shooting team and we didn’t shoot the ball well, but we were still in the game. I’m very proud of our kids for that.”
Part of the reason was Newark’s ability to crash the offensive boards. The Wildcats scored their next two baskets off of offensive rebounds, including a corner 3-pointer by Heard to extend the lead back to four.
The Wildcats salted it away at the line from there by hitting 15 of 19 free throws in the fourth quarter.
“Keshawn’s had an unbelievable senior year,” Quackenbush said. “We dug out a couple of loose balls and long rebounds. When we did that – they had to foul us and I thought our kids did a great job in this atmosphere of making free throws.”
Lane finished with a game-high 21 points and five assists and Brannon added 10 points and seven boards for the Pioneers (17-8), who last made a district final in Calo’s first season in 2013.
Luke Ballinger had nine points and four boards and Irvin finished with seven points, three rebounds and a pair of assists for Orange.
Newark faces Pickerington North in a regional semifinal Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Ohio Dominican University’s Alumni Hall.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichnotwealthy or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.