Past March stunner provides lesson in not looking ahead

Rob Brandenberg has been a part of some major NCAA tournament upsets at VCU. His underdog streak began in high school in the Columbus area.

Anthony Gruppuso

This is a basketball story, the kind that gets better with age.

"I’ll tell it when I’m 70," VCU guard Rob Brandenberg said.

More specifically, this is a March basketball story — the kind that sums up the power and unpredictability of basketball’s greatest month, when almost every game is the last for the team that loses. In a one-and-done format, there’s little margin for error. One win leads to the next, one bracket line at a time, but the really big upsets are remembered.

They get better with age.

"It’s a game and a story that — and it’s been sort of weird to me — seems to be growing with time," Gahanna Lincoln coach Tony Staib said. "Especially here in Columbus, I still hear people bring it up. I’ll be out somewhere and someone will stop me and say, ‘Hey, I was at that game,’ or, ‘I remember that game a year ago, two years ago, now four years ago.’

"The upset and the magnitude of the upset seem to be growing. If Rob is going to talk about it when he’s 70, maybe he’s not the only one."

It was four years ago next week that Staib’s Gahanna Lincoln team qualified for the Div. I regional final at the Columbus Fairgrounds — "The Barn," as basketball watchers have long known it — against Columbus Northland, the unbeaten defending state champion. Northland, 23-0 and headlined by Mr. Basketball Jared Sullinger, was also the No. 1 team in the nation in those mythical polls that now pop up all over the Internet.

It would be Sullinger’s last game in a Northland uniform.

The final score: Gahanna Lincoln 71, Northland 45. Suddenly, Northland was 23 and done.

"I don’t know how you’d rank all the upsets that ever happened," Brandenberg said, "but if you just say No. 1 team in the country, defending state champs, undefeated with the best player in the state and one of the top players in the country, it has to be up there.


"How about major upset? That sounds like a good way to say it."

The rankings were well earned. Sullinger was a force in the middle. He was also just nine months away from leading Ohio State to the nation’s No. 1 ranking. 6’7 J.D. Weatherspoon gave Northland another Ohio State recruit on its front line. Point guard Trey Burke was a year away from winning Mr. Basketball himself — and three from being college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan. Backups Devon Scott and Jalen Robinson, both in the neighborhood of 6’7 themselves, now play at Dayton. Jordan Potts, then a sophomore guard, plays at UNC-Greensboro.

A nationally-televised win over traveling All-Star team Findlay Prep of Nevada early in the season, the win streak that dated back 13 months and Sullinger’s lofty status nationally — the McDonald’s All-American Game was played in Columbus that year — had propelled Northland to the top spot in multiple national polls in addition to Ohio’s Associated Press poll.

Mike Fuline was then the coach at Massillon Jackson High School, and his team would go on to defeat Gahanna the next week, then a night later win the state championship.

"All year long, when we would look ahead, we’d look at the bracket lines to the state semifinals," Fuline said. "Northland. Nobody beat Northland the year before, and everybody seemed safe in assuming they’d be there again. They had NBA players."

Northland’s run was sunk in 30 basketball minutes by a relentless — and near perfect — Gahanna effort. After a 7-0 Northland start, Gahanna’s nerves settled. The passes got crisper. The shots started falling. The rim looked bigger — Northland’s intimidating lineup seemed to shrink.

"Before the game, only the people in our locker room believed it could happen," Brandenberg said. "I actually remember being at school and students were betting on the game…taking bets, making a line, kids I’d never talked to before telling me they had money on us losing."

Really?

"Really," Brandenberg said. "Nobody bet against Jared Sullinger."

**

Whether or not Northland was actually Goliath, Gahanna had a little more in its arsenal that just a pebble. The Lions were 25-0. Brandenberg was a year away from playing in the Final Four at VCU. Brandenberg was flanked by two more Div. I guards, Anthony Jackson (Stony Brook) and Stevie Taylor (Ohio University).

This was the game basketball watchers had circled. Unbeaten vs. unbeaten. City vs. suburbs. Guards vs. bigs.

"Everybody in the city of Columbus was at that game," Taylor said. "We’d heard about it all year. The tickets went quick. The atmosphere was ridiculous.

"Even people who weren’t there now say they were."

With two days to prepare for Northland between the regional semifinals and the Saturday night final, Staib rounded up local college players for practice in an effort to simulate Northland’s size. His team had been successful all year by spreading the floor, playing an up-tempo style until it was time to kill some clock and rely on those gifted guards to protect the ball.

The plan in this game would be no different.

"We knew we had to make them come out and guard us," Staib said. "We had very good guards. We were a very good team when we had the lead, when people had to come chase us.

"Our goal was to speed them up. We weren’t going to stop Sullinger. No one was. But we wanted to try to run them ragged, to make the other guys beat us."

Sullinger finished with 24 points, more than half of Northland’s output, and 15 rebounds. The plan worked.

Back to school: Undercover in the student section

"We didn’t pressure them the whole game full court or anything like that," Taylor said. "We pressed a little. We picked up three-quarter court. We just started clicking, started making plays and put them in a spot they hadn’t been in."

Taylor and Brandenberg each finished with 19 points. They consistently beat defenders off the dribble and were able to produce either acrobatic finishes at the rim or kick the ball back out behind the 3-point line for open shots. After that 7-0 start, Gahanna outscored Northland 33-15 over the rest of the first half.

"The thing I took away from that game was how thoroughly Gahanna dismantled Northland, and that’s the main reason the huge crowd was so stunned," said Steve Blackledge, the longtime Columbus Dispatch sports writer who covered the game for the paper. "Gahanna came in with the perfect gameplan and executed it flawlessly. I’d have to look it up, but I remember that Gahanna shot some ungodly percentage from the field that night."

It was 61 percent, according to the story Blackledge filed from The Barn that night. Gahanna made 10 of 12 shots in the second quarter.

**

Northland punched first. Gahanna then landed about five haymakers, and Northland had no counter.

In the fourth quarter, Taylor made eye contact with Brandenberg on the wing. Brandenberg faked like he was coming toward Taylor at the top of the key, then made a backdoor cut. A perfectly-placed bounce pass met him, and Brandendberg caught it and rose to the rim with one hand.

A dunk and a foul.

"A play I’ll never forget," Brandenberg said.

Taylor called it "the exclamation point."

"It just wasn’t in the cards tonight," Northland coach Satch Sullinger, Jared’s father, told Blackledge after the game. "This wasn’t the team I coached all year, but a lot has to do with Gahanna. I just don’t know. All it takes is one hiccup. We lost to a quality team that just shot the lights out. That’s nothing to be ashamed about."

Said Blackledge: "I remember telling my fellow media members beforehand that it was going to be a great game, probably decided by five points or less. Although I can’t tell you that I actually predicted Gahanna would win, I was convinced the teams were evenly matched mostly because Gahanna’s quickness, style and strategy would counter Northland’s height and athleticism.

"Gahanna had tremendous chemistry and was well coached. Northland was a much talked about team because of its national ranking, Jared Sullinger, etc., but I sensed that there was a bit of cockiness and complacency surrounding that team."

Taylor didn’t just pop his jersey in the wild postgame celebration — he took it off and raised it for everyone in The Barn to see.

"We probably did think we were unbeatable," Weatherspoon said in an interview before this season, his first at Toledo. "Gahanna played a great game and proved that wasn’t true."

Said Brandenberg: "I think the word was ‘stunned.’ Northland was a great team — great players, great guys. They respected us. I think we just stunned them and then kept going."

Sullinger was drafted two years ago by the Boston Celtics. Burke was drafted in the top 10 last year by the Utah Jazz. Sullinger and Burke played together in the NBA Future Stars game as part of last month’s NBA All-Star Weekend festivities. Both played in the Final Four and earned All-American honors during their two-year college careers. Their stature and continued success in basketball have probably helped grow the legend of this particular game.

"When those guys would be on TV getting drafted or playing in those big games, I probably used to bring that game up to people at VCU," Brandenberg said. "I’m happy for those guys, though. They deserve everything they get."

Said Taylor: "It wasn’t about beating them as individuals…it was about Gahanna making history, silencing the doubters. Those guys are friends of mine. We still talk. We all grew up playing against each other, playing on the same AAU teams, playing in open gyms. I’m the biggest fan of Burke and Sully and (Weatherspoon) there is — except when I’m playing against them."

**

The thing about March, and drama, and a one-and-done, knockout format is that the bracket continues until there’s just one winner.

Everybody who had already penciled Northland ahead had to find an eraser. Actually, Gahanna erased Northland. But Gahanna had to keep going.

Now the coach at the University of Mount Union, Fuline remembers going through the handshake line following his Jackson team’s regional title win over Toledo St. John’s at the University of Akron when someone whispered to him, "Gahanna beat Northland," and his attention immediately turned to Jackson’s next game.

"We were trying to enjoy our win," Fuline said. "But in the back of my head was, ‘If this team beat Northland, they must be really, really good.’"

Over the ensuing days, Fuline said film study of the Gahanna-Northland game reinforced his initial theory.

"Obviously I didn’t know what either team’s game plan was just watching it," Fuline said, "but I remember thinking that Gahanna seemed to do everything right. If you’re a coach, the way it went for Gahanna…that had to be the way you drew just about everything up. That’s a coach’s dream, especially in late March."

Said Staib: "When you make shots, you make it look like you have the greatest plan. Everything comes a lot easier. We made a lot of shots."

Maybe Gahanna made too many shots at once in the Barn. Maybe Gahanna was out of gas. Waiting in the state semifinal the following Friday on Ohio State’s campus was a Jackson team that, like Northland, had two players at least 6’7 on the front line — and was peaking at the right time.

Jackson 62, Gahanna 50. Gahanna made just 18-of-57 shots.

"Honestly, give Jackson credit — they kicked our butts," Brandenberg said. "That week it felt like we had won the state championship already. There were TV cameras everywhere. As seniors, we could have handled it better. I do think we lost sight, a little bit, of the fact we had a game to play after Northland."

Said Staib: "I think the guys very much regret that they didn’t finish the job. There was so much media attention, so much celebration with the win and making the state tournament for the first time…we didn’t look past Jackson, but we didn’t give Jackson our best game."

Taylor’s view was a little different: "No hangover. We just played our worst game of the year at the wrong time. We didn’t execute. The better team that night won."

Ah, March.

Jackson, ranked 13th in the final AP poll of the season, would go on to dominate Cincinnati Moeller the next night and win the school’s first state title. At least in Columbus, though, the most memorable game of the 2010 state tournament remains Gahanna over Northland.

"My sixth-grade son watches it on YouTube," Staib said. "I know it still gets a lot of clicks."

Said Blackledge: "It definitely was one of the more memorable games I’ve covered in 30-some years doing this."

Said Taylor: "Just mentioning it, it brings back a lot of great memories. Maybe I don’t think it was as big of an upset as a lot of people do, but it was a great win, a great game. It’s one I’ll never forget."

It’s one that’s provided lessons, too, for those who have watched closely in March, at The Barn or elsewhere.

"We beat the best team in the state," Staib said. "Jackson won the title, has the trophy and earned that. But Northland was the best team in the state, and that was an incredible win for our school and our community. I just wish we would have had a couple more wins left in us."

It’s March.

Expect the unexpected.