Thirteenth-seeded Newark, looking for its second upset in as many games, threw the first punch, but the host and fifth-seeded Olentangy Liberty boys basketball team threw the last en route to winning its second Division I district title in the last three seasons Saturday night in Powell.
The Wildcats started strong, taking a 12-4 lead less than four minutes into the action thanks in part to a pair of hoops from Drew Ballinger and three-pointers from Kade Bafford and Ethan Stare.
The Patriots closed the gap in a hurry, though. They battled back to lead by a point by halftime, 26-25, and pulled away from there en route to a 57-45 win.
Henry Hinkle ran the show for the Patriots, finishing with a double-double: 11 points and 10 assists.
He scored inside to open the second half and found Tylar Foster for a three-point play on Liberty’s next trip down the floor to stretch the lead to 31-25 with 7:08 left in the third quarter.
Newark stayed close, at least for a few minutes, pulling within one when Ethan Schell hit a three with five minutes left in the third. The Patriots scored the next six straight, though — a Foster layin and two hoops from Andrew Wade — to take control for good.
After Ballinger hit a pair of free throws, Hinkle scored back-to-back buckets, the second a three-point play, to bump the lead to 10, 42-32 with 1:08 left in the third.
A Hinkle deflection and steal led to a Wade hoop shortly after that and, following another empty trip from Newark, Wade scored inside to beat the third-quarter buzzer and give the Patriots a commanding 46-32 edge after three.
Considering how well Liberty can handle the ball and shoot free throws, the game was essentially over at that point, but the nail in the coffin came with just more than three minutes to go. After scoring to cut the deficit to 12, Newark pressed in hopes of creating a turnover. It looked like it got one, too, but the steal attempt after a deflection wound up in the hands of Wade, who scored inside to make it a 51-37 game with three minutes to play.
Wade led the Patriots with 17 points while Hinkle and Foster added 11 apiece.
Ballinger paced Newark with 17 points and Bafford finished with 10 in the setback.
Next up, Liberty will look to reach its second regional final in the last three years with a win over Gahanna Lincoln in Thursday’s semifinal. Tip is set for 6 p.m. at Ohio Dominican University.