DAYTON, Oh - As the Basketball Cats climbed onto the bus for the three-hour trek south to Dayton on Friday afternoon, there was some familiarity with this part of the high school basketball season journey.
The Wildcats were heading back to the Final Four for the second consecutive season, proving that last season was not a fluke. Head Basketball Coach Cam Joyce's squad had weathered a midseason slump and got hot at just the right time to get there.
Following their Regional Final victory against the Lima Senior Spartans, the Cats had won seven games in a row, many of them convincingly. This was by far their longest winning streak of the season.
Even with the Wildcats playing their best basketball of the season, it was unclear if it would be enough to knock off the Centerville Elks, the defending Division I State Champions.
The Elks were unlike any opponent the Wildcats had seen all season. Led by a big three made up of Mr. Basketball favorite, Gabe Cupps, and rounded out by seniors Tom House and Rich Rolf.
Cupps is already committed to Indiana University and House is headed down south to Florida State. Rolf, meanwhile, remains uncommitted but maintains offers from Charlotte and Duquesne.
The Wildcats pale compared to the star power of the Elks yet remained confident that their defense, depth and young core could carry them against Centerville.
The defense for the Cats has been dominant all season long, surrendering 70 or more points on only three occasions.
The depth has been a hallmark of the Wildcats since last season and in the game against Lima, coach Joyce saw five different players score in the double digits.
The young core, made up of CJ Little, Ace Buckner and Carter Jackson, entered the State Semifinal coming off their best game together. Little put up 14 points with four assists, Buckner poured in 17 points and four rebounds and Jackson added 15 points off the bench.
On top of that, the Cats had also played through arguably the most challenging schedule in the state. When it was all set and done, they had squared off with two eventual state champions in Cathedral (IN) and Liberty (NV), as well as a state runner-up in Wheeler (GA). Furthermore, 11 games this season came against teams ranked inside Cleveland.com's final Top 25.
By tip-off at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, one of the largest crowds of the weekend had taken their seats, with the student sections having positioned themselves on opposite ends of the arena behind the baskets.
The battle-tested Wildcats looked primed for a possible major upset. Unfortunately, the Centerville Elks were every bit as good as advertised. The Elks, backed by a seemingly home crowd as UD Arena was just 20 minutes from Centerville High School, made quick work of the Cats.
The contest's first points came from two free throws by Jonathan Effertz, which ended up being the only Saint Ignatius lead of the game.
The Elks were off and running from the start. Rolf provided the original spark, quickly answering Effertz's two points with a deep three-pointer over Owen Maruca. While many view Cupps as the best player on the Centerville roster, an argument can be made for Rolf. The 6'7 senior forward plays like a guard and has a great outside shot.
Rolf scored eight of his team's 15 first-quarter points, out-scoring the Wildcats' seven total points.
Following the 15-7 start for the Elks, they continued to roll through the Cats' defense by constantly altering the pace of their offense. Sometimes, the Elks charged down the floor in transition, not allowing the Wildcats to settle in. Other times, they would slow to a crawl and drain minutes off the clock. This caused nightmares for what was typically a sound Saint Ignatius defense.
The scoreboard at halftime did not yield good news either; the Wildcats and the Elks headed into the locker room with Centerville leading 29-13.
The offensive run that was needed if the Cats were to close the gap never came to fruition.
Every time the Wildcats attempted to spark something, the Elks were right there to stomp it out.
Cupps delivered a highlight during the third quarter that sent thousands of Centerville fans into an uproar as he dunked on Jackson. Jackson attempted a block, but the future Hoosier won that battle and threw it down with one hand.
With the Elks now feeding off every ounce of momentum in UD Arena, the game looked like it was out of reach for the Cats.
The Wildcats trailed 41-19 after the third quarter and fell victim to Centerville's 7-2 run over the final four minutes. Things were not going the way of the Basketball Cats on Saturday night.
The fourth quarter and the final one of the Wildcats' season were similar. Centerville continued their dominance on the court and midway through the fourth, both coaches subbed in their bench reserves. The Elks did this just as any team leading by nearly 30 points late in the game would do.
While for the Wildcats, it was an opportunity for four seniors, Rakyi Davis, AJ Fletcher, Charlie Hyland and Timmy Ruddy, to take the floor wearing the Blue and Gold one final time. Along with Tristan Marshall, those seniors finished those last minutes with no lack of hustle and intensity. A fitting end to their Saint Ignatius careers.
The Wildcats' season came to a close by a final score of 64-33 as Centerville's win streak rolled along as it extended to 45 consecutive games. Pickerington Central, the winners of the other semifinal game against Saint Edward, dramatically ended the Elks' incredible streak by defeating Centerville in the State Championship game the following night.
Cupps finished with 15 points, House had 13 points, and Rolf added 12 points. Centerville's big three accounted for 40 points.
The stats were not particularly pretty for the Wildcats. Buckner led the team with 13 points and two steals, just hours after dealing with an illness. Effertz, who finished with six points in his final game for Saint Ignatius, was the only other Wildcat who had over five points.
The substantial shooting percentages that had fueled the Cats' postseason run ended with 33% from the field and nine percent from the three-point range.
The 2021-2022 campaign did not go as most predicted; it was filled with numerous injuries, slumps, canceled games and high-quality opponents. Yet, against all odds, the Wildcats ended up where they expected to be back in November, back in Dayton competing for a State Championship.
While the goal of bringing home the first basketball title back to the Corner of W. 30th and Lorain since 2001 did not happen this season, the players on this team paved the way for that dream to be pursued soon.