March ecstasy and agony
When this year’s Ohio high school basketball tournament got started a month ago Walnut Hills, Cincinnati’s top Division I team, wanted to prove it was more than hype, Kettering Alter was looking at extending its coach’s stay as long as possible and Roger Bacon was playing in memory of its recently deceased athletic director.
Walnut Hills and Alter will continue playing next week in Columbus but Roger Bacon’s run ended Saturday night at Kettering Fairmont’s Trent Arena in the Division III regional final against Versailles.
Walnut Hills won its first regional championship Friday night, beating La Salle 50-46 at Xavier’s Cintas Center behind senior center Isaiah Johnson’s third consecutive double-double. Johnson scored 16 points and pulled down 10 rebounds as the Eagles fought off La Salle’s attempt for a second regional title in three seasons.
The Eagles will take their 27-1 record and No. 3 state ranking to the state tournament for a semifinal game against Toledo Rogers (20-7) Friday night at Ohio State University’s Schottenstein Center. Walnut Hills, one of the top 100 academic high schools in the country, has had just one other team ever reach state-level play – its 1965 baseball team.
Alter won the Division II title and earned a ninth trip to the state tournament in the 49-year career of coach Joe Petrocelli by knocking off defending state champ Dayton Dunbar 60-59 Saturday afternoon at Trent Arena. Senior guard Jaaron Simmons scored on a break-away layup with 9.6 seconds left and the Knights survived a final shot by Dunbar and 25 points by junior William Green to extend their tournament run.
“(Petrocelli) means everything to me,” said Simmons. “He put his faith in me as a freshman to come in and play and now that we’re here it’s just a great feeling.”
Simmons scored 26 points Saturday, continuing his tournament offensive onslaught. He is averaging 28.2 points this postseason, including 29 points in a 62-58 win against top-ranked Thurgood Marshall in the sectional final and 33 points against Wilmington in the district title game. He has scored at least 21 points in 10 of his last 11 games.
Petrocelli is the only boys’ basketball coach Alter has ever known. His teams have won three state titles and this was his 25th regional tournament appearance. The Knights last won a regional title in 2003, when they got to the Division II state final before losing to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary 40-36 in the senior season of LeBron James & Co.
Alter, ranked seventh in the state, will face Columbus Watterson, ranked No. 2 in the state, Thursday night at 8:30 in one semifinal. St. Vincent-St. Mary will play No. 9 Vincent Warren in the other semifinal, setting up the possibility of a rematch 10 years later.
“I don’t think (James) has any eligibility left so we’re okay that way anyway,” said Petrocelli. “I’m just shocked that we’re going back to state. Every one of these games has shocked me. I’m dead serious. I would never have believed it. When we started out the season, I was hoping to have a winning season.”
Senior guard Michael Spencer’s father Tony graduated from Alter in 1987 and played for Petrocelli. Spencer scored 12 points against Dunbar and had to carry a lot of the ball-handling load as Dunbar did its best to keep it out of the Simmons’ hands.
“Petro always talks about it. He makes jokes about it. Some days I’m better than my dad, some days he’s better,” said Spencer.
Dunbar was seeking its sixth state berth since Peter Pullen took over in 2005. The Wolverines have won four state titles in those previous five trips.
“If I’m going to go out, I’d rather go out like this,” said Pullen. “I’m so happy and elated for coach Petro. He’s one of the few in here that’s really been respectful to me and to my program. If I had to lose, I’ll take it to him, especially since it’s his last time around.”
Roger Bacon, which lost AD Joe Corcoran a week before the tournament began, lost 56-53 against Versailles after beating top-ranked and defending state champion Summit Country Day in the regional semifinals. The Spartans rallied to beat Division I St. Xavier two days after Corcoran’s death in their regular season finale but Versailles ended the regional final on a 9-2 run, including a driving layup by sophomore Kyle Ahrens with 13.2 seconds left that provided the deciding points.
Nearly 20 minutes had passed from the game’s end and Roger Bacon coach Brian Neal was standing in the hallway outside of his team’s locker room, bent over with his hands on his knees and head down in thought.
“I’m exhausted but that’s part of the deal. I told the guys after the game that it hurts because you work so hard at it,” said Neal. “I’m hurting for the guys. I’m hurting for the school community because we have gone through quite a bit lately. But, at the same time, us playing basketball and us playing good basketball and competing with a chance to go back up to Columbus certainly kind of polarized the school and, I don’t know if it was a remedy but it helped.”
It was the third consecutive season Roger Bacon lost in the regional final. Two years ago it fell to Thurgood Marshall in the Division II final. Last season, it was Summit in Division III. Versailles led 16-8 at the end of the first quarter, 27-23 at halftime and 41-40 entering the fourth quarter. There were two ties and six lead changes in the second half.
“We dug ourselves in a hole in the beginning,” said senior forward Jake Westerfeld. “We fought back as hard as we could but it wasn’t enough.”