KENT, Oh - It takes eight wins in a row to win the OHSAA State Basketball Championship, and going into last Wednesday’s Regional Semifinal; the Wildcats were halfway there with four. After ending the season 11-11, the team is on their longest win streak, having won against John Marshall, Akron Firestone, Medina Highland and Brunswick. As newly crowned District Champions, the Wildcats took on Cleveland Heights, with the winner of this game going on to the Regional Final against the winner of Lima Senior and Sylvania Northview. With a comfortable win already in their pocket against Cleveland Heights from January 8, the Wildcats saw this Regional Semifinal as the last game of the playoffs before the level of their opponent rises to a much higher level, seeing as Sylvania Northview had crushed the Cats earlier this year 70-55 on January 17. But before looking ahead to that game, the Wildcats traveled to Kent State University to win game five of these playoffs.
The Wildcats again deployed the small, fast and offensively red-hot lineup of CJ Little, Jonathan Effertz, Ace Buckner, Braydn Szczepaniak and Owen Maruca. The Wildcats also used Carter Jackson extensively and CJ Yarian heavily in this game, coming off the bench.
The Tigers and the Wildcats played very similarly score-wise to their early-season matchup, in which the Cats won 57-50. However, the level of play from these two teams was elevated in this playoff matchup. Back in January, the game was full of turnovers and very sloppy play, in which the Wildcats and Cleveland Heights were both very off. Compared to 18 turnovers from before, the Wildcats only had 8 in this second matchup and played a much more organized and collected game on offense.
The Wildcats played with consistency, as has been the theme of these playoffs. On offense and defense throughout, the Wildcats were in control. After 15 in the first and 15 in the second, the Wildcats dropped slightly to 12 in the third before finishing with 16 points in the fourth quarter. Cleveland Heights scored 10, 13, 11 and 18 simultaneously, keeping themselves down for much of the game before outscoring the Wildcats in the second half, 29-28.
Without the fourth quarter offensively from Cleveland Heights, the Wildcats would have had a much larger win, but no team in these playoffs will go down without a fight to the end.
After Cleveland Heights pulled even at 46-46 for the first time since the first quarter, when Shermariono Hardy hit a corner three in front of the Tigers’ fans to go 46-46, the Wildcats went on a thrilling 12-6 run to take back the lead, win the game and move on in the playoffs. It started with a backdoor cut from Effertz and a dish from Buckner with just over five minutes left. Then, the Tigers missed a three and Carter Jackson finished a putback under the hoop from a missed Effertz three. Heights stormed down and Hosea Steele, who finished with 17 points, rebounded his miss and made a layup over Yarian, 50-48 still the Wildcats.
After a defensive stop, Jackson came back with another putback from an Effertz three, 52-48. With two minutes to go, the Tigers scored next on a fast-break layup from Rayvelle Duncan, 52-50. The Tigers fouled Little the next time up the floor and at the line for one and one, Little missed the first and Cleveland Heights rebounded and set up on offense. A quick but efficient play later, Heights found Jamir Cliff in the corner with a chance to take the lead, but the shot went long. Little rebounded and saw Carter Jackson flying to the hoop and Jackson was fouled on a layup and went to the line for two free throws, sinking both, 54-50 Wildcats.
On the next critical possession for the Tigers, the Wildcats forced a much-needed turnover and Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce called timeout, drawing up a play that found Buckner open on the right block, 56-50 Wildcats. The Tigers launched a three from the logo in desperation on their next possession and Buckner got the board and was fouled and hit 1-of-2 free throws, 57-50. The Tigers rebounded the second free throw but turned it over at the other end, with Buckner gaining possession, taking contact and hitting one free throw again. With 10 seconds to play, the Wildcats were up 58-50 and let Hardy finish with a layup for a final score of 58-52.
The Wildcats finished six ahead and won their fifth straight game as time expired. At the same time at the University of Toledo, Lima Senior’s Camren Miles hit go-ahead last-second corner three to clinch a berth in the Regional Final for Lima Senior. The Wildcats and Lima Senior were set to play on Saturday, March 12, at 2:00 p.m. at Toledo.
TOLEDO, Oh - The Wildcats continued their postseason surge on Saturday afternoon. After defeating Cleveland Heights in the Regional Semifinal on Wednesday, the Cats began to prepare for the Regional Final game in which they would take on the Lima Senior Spartans.
The Spartans advanced out of their Regional Semifinal using a buzzer-beater three-pointer by Camren Miles. When he shot the game-winning three, numerous claims photographs place Miles' back heel out of bounds. Yet, the referee did not call Miles out of bounds on the floor, so the Spartans escaped with a 62-59 against Sylvania Northview.
The Wildcats met Northview early this season as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Showcase in Rossford. A sluggish effort by the Cats resulted in a 70-55 loss and the second game of a 2-6 stretch throughout January.
The Lima Spartans are another familiar opponent to the Wildcats. These two schools squared off in last year's Regional Final. Henry Raynor '21 led the Cats to a 56-44 victory, scoring 19 points and punching Saint Ignatius' ticket to the Final Four for the first time since 2001.
This year's Basketball Cats wanted to repeat history with their win against Lima. The Spartans maintained a 23-2 record. Heading into Saturday would be no easy task.
Lima did not want to write a similar script from a year ago. Head Coach Quincey Simpson has led the Spartans to six Regional Finals in his eight seasons at the helm. The experience was on the side of the Spartans, while history favored the Wildcats.
The game's overall atmosphere was vastly different from the previous matchup in 2021 at Norwalk High School, with limited fans in attendance. This time, the Wildcats and Spartans played inside a college arena with plenty of fans in attendance. It was a prime example of mid-March high school playoff basketball.
The back and forth nature of the game began in the first quarter. Neither team could gain a leg up on the other, Lima would score and Saint Ignatius would counter back at the other end.
The Wildcats led 8-6 with 3:04 remaining in the opening quarter after C.J. Yarian buried a deep mid-range jumper. The largest lead for either side was a four-point advantage for the Wildcats throughout the quarter, which happened on several occasions.
A slow but consistently paced first quarter came to a close with Saint Ignatius on top of Lima 12-8. Those 12 points scored by the Cats were the fewest in the first quarter since February 18th. Comparatively, the eight points they surrendered were tied for the third-fewest points given up in the opening quarter this season.
The offenses then picked up the pace in the second quarter. The Wildcats got on the attack right away, scoring on their first two possessions and quickly led 17-10 with 6:52 left in the first half.
After the fast start, the offenses for both teams leveled out in their production. Yet, they still seemed to match each other on nearly every basket.
The Wildcats operated with a three to five-point lead throughout the second quarter. Then, the Cats' significant lull in scoring allowed the Spartans to close the gap and take the lead.
Lima's lead was short-lived as the Blue and Gold went on a sudden 4-2 run to regain a slight 26-25 advantage.
The theatrics arrived for the final minutes of the first half for the Wildcats. CJ Little and Ace Buckner nailed a three-pointer as the clock waned away in the second quarter to give the Cats a 32-27 lead. Little's trifecta, his second of the night and the season gave the Cats a 29-25 lead at a crucial spot where Lima was desperately trying to make a run at the lead.
Then, Buckner's three sank through the net as the second quarter buzzer sounded, providing a massive lift for the Wildcats heading into the locker room. This was Buckner's second three-point buzzer-beater of these playoffs; the sophomore also buried one as time expired in the third quarter, back in the District Final against Brunswick.
Little's two three-pointers were undoubtedly the top moments of the first half in the Regional Final. As one SIBN analyst said, "That is a historical antique that will be in this program for a long time."
The Wildcats struggled to find the net early in the third quarter and only scored four points over the first 3:30 second half. Comparatively, the Spartans scored nine third-quarter points simultaneously and led the Wildcats 38-36.
Lima continued to stay hot as Qunitel Wilson buried a triple that gave the Spartans a 41-38 lead at the time. Carter Jackson single-handedly kept the Cats in the game during this stretch. After converting on a three-point play, Jackson scored five straight points and tied the game back up at 41.
Lima and Saint Ignatius continued to trade baskets in the last couple of minutes of the third quarter. The biggest shot came from Spartan point guard Khalil Luster who buried a deep three with just seconds on the clock that cut a six-point lead in half. Luster's three-point shot made the score 49-46, heading into the fourth quarter.
The fourth quarter of the Regional Final did not follow the trend set forth by the previous three quarters. All signs pointed to a race to the finish line in which the team who possessed the ball last would be the team who came out on top.
It was clear from the outset of the fourth quarter that the Wildcats had the greater intensity and it appeared, the greater will to win. Miles's turning point was a missed dunk attempt, which directly led to a Buckner three-pointer. Buckner's second three-pointer of the afternoon gave the Cats a 56-48 lead.
The Wildcats solidified their lead this time as they led 61-50 with 4:30 to go in the fourth quarter.
Lima's shooting went cold from the field in the fourth, meanwhile, Wildcats heavily utilized fast-break baskets and free throws to build what became a 68-54 lead with 2:45 left in the Regional Final.
Coach Joyce called a timeout with 1:26 remaining as the anticipation of victory began to sweep all over Savage Arena as the Wildcat faithful were ready to see their team punch their ticket to the Final Four for the second consecutive season.
"It's even a better feeling to be going back," says Joyce, "I think it's a testament to the guys' hard work…We had a lot of tough losses, but those tough losses helped us down the stretch and are a big reason why we are heading down to the State Semifinal."
Following the timeout, Rakyi Davis, Charlie Hyland, Sean Martin, Tristan Marshall and Timmy Ruddy checked in to close out a 74-58 win for the Wildcats.
As the clock hit zero, Davis flung the ball high into the air as a Wildcat mobbing ensued at midcourt. It was the payoff of a grueling regular season schedule and six well-earned playoff wins.
"The schedule was everything," explains Joyce. "It was probably too tough, but I told the guys after we lost a tough one to Green in overtime to finish the season that we could still accomplish everything we wanted to before the season started."
Little scored 14 points with four assists, shooting 2-of-2 from three-point range. Little has been productive in the five postseason games he has played in. The sophomore is averaging 5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in the playoffs.
Buckner poured in a team-high 17 points with four rebounds and three assists. It has been known since the moment he suited up for the first time, when Buckner scores into the high single and double digits, the Wildcats tend to do very well in the win column.
"Just wanting to win," says Buckner, "We have one goal and that's winning a State Championship."
Jackson continued his stellar stretch of basketball on Saturday. Jackson has finished with 24, 13 and 15 in his last three games. The second-year varsity Wildcat has shifted from his usual starting role into a six-man spot off the bench. It seems to be working out well as Jackson has had his most consistent offensive stretch of the season after the switch was made before the District Final.
Effertz and Yarian each added 10 and 13 points, respectively. While Effertz's impact on the game was not felt on the score sheet in his typical fashion, he provided the veteran presence on the floor that is key to the young core that was so successful on Saturday. Yarian had his best playoff game to date, finishing with 13 points and a crucial seven boards. The rebounding figure can be misleading, as when Yarian was not pulling down boards, he was tipping the ball out into the hands of his teammates.
Now, the Basketball Cats will return to the University of Dayton Arena for their second straight Division I Final Four appearance and the fifth in program history. This is also the first time Saint Ignatius has captured back-to-back Regional Championships.
Awaiting the Wildcats in the Semifinal game will be the Centerville Elks. The 2021 State Champions are the undisputed #1 team in Ohio and are currently riding a 44 game win streak dating back to last season. The Wildcats of the previous season wanted to face off against Centerville in last year's State Tournament but did not get the opportunity. Now, the dangerous, red-hot Men of Ohio City will get that chance at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday.
"I wouldn't say there's pressure," says Effertz when asked about the added pressure of being seniors and having one last chance to win State Title. "We're just going to give it everything we got, put it all on the line, there's nothing to lose, we got this far and we may as well win it at this point."
The SIBN will be limited to audio-only coverage of the State Semifinal game. @SIHSSSports will also have live in-game updates and highlights.