NEW ALBANY — The Mount Vernon High School boys basketball team dug itself into quite a deep hole on Saturday night against the Westerville Central Warhawks. Down by eight at halftime and as much as 11 points late in the third quarter, the Yellow Jackets could have panicked.
Instead, they methodically worked their way back with a 15-3 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. Then, Mount Vernon had to score the game-winning bucket in the final 30 seconds to defeat the Warhawks, 39-36, at New Albany High School.
“This is big for us,” said Mount Vernon senior Ben Severns. “We wanted to keep going in the tournament, and we hadn’t really beaten a top-tier team all year. That’s what we did tonight.”
With the win, Mount Vernon advances to the Division I Central District semifinals at the Fairgrounds Coliseum for the second straight season.
“This feels real good,” said Mount Vernon junior Joe Scott. “Hopefully, we can actually pull one off this year.”
In a game where neither team shot particularly well, the Jackets (16-6) were able to rally when it mattered and hit their free throws — 7-of-7 in the fourth quarter — down the stretch. Even still, they found themselves in need of some late heroics to win the game.
“We talked all week about how it could come down to free throws, and our guys stepped up and knocked down some big shots,” said Mount Vernon coach Kurt Kaufman. “We were able to attack and get into the bonus, and then we were able to take advantage of it.
“We talked about keeping it close,” Kaufman added. “With our experience, keeping it close was important until we could find a way to do it in the end. That’s what our guys did.”
The 15-3 run gave Mount Vernon a 33-32 lead with 3:09 to play, but the Warhawks (16-6) answered with a pair of layups in the next two minutes to go back up by three, 36-33. Following a Jacket timeout, Mount Vernon’s Russell Doup got to the free-throw line and hit both shots with 58.1 seconds left. The Jackets immediately fouled the Warhawks to put Soloman Brown at the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity. Brown missed the first attempt, however, and Stephen Bien rebounded for the Jackets.
On their next possession, however, the Jackets had the ball stolen away from Jourdan DeVoll. DeVoll passed to teammate Jerrell Fernandez, who was fouled with 30 seconds to play. Once again facing a 1-1, Fernandez couldn’t convert and Bien rebounded. This time, though, Mount Vernon took the lead as Ben Severns drove through the paint for a layup with 17 seconds remaining.
“At halftime, coach said we needed to take better shots,” said Severns. “We switched up our offense a little bit and started running low. They weren’t switching and we were able to penetrate in the middle, and that’s the shot I got to win the game.”
Westerville Central had one last opportunity in the closing seconds of the game, but Joe Scott intercepted a pass intended for Brown and drove the length of the court before being fouled with 1.3 seconds left. Scott hit the pair to seal the 39-36 victory and send the Jackets back to the district semifinals.
“We’ve been in this situation before that they kind of know what to expect,” said Kaufman. “We challenged them at halftime, and I think you saw them rise to the occasion. They really stepped up.”
“I’m not going to lie; I was nervous as ever just because I knew I needed to make those,” said Scott. “After coach said to settle down, I did the best I could and hit them.”
In the first half, neither team could gain much of a lasting advantage. Mount Vernon started off with a 4-0 lead only to see Westerville Central go on a 12-2 run and lead 12-6 with 6:28 to go in the second quarter. The Jackets managed to outscore the Warhawks, 8-4, over the next five minutes to pull within two, but Westerville Central scored six points in the final 1:16 of play to take a 22-14 lead into the locker room.
“Both teams were having an off night, and when we got the ball in the post, they were real physical,” said Scott of the team’s start. “They played real good man-to-man defense, and had good ball pressure on our wings. It was a tough night.”
Neither team scored in the first four minutes of the third quarter, and each traded buckets after they did get the scoring going. A 3-pointer by Fernandez gave Westerville Central with 1:44 to go, but a Severns 3-pointer matched it for Mount Vernon and ended the quarter where it started — an eight-point deficit.
“That was something that we needed,” said Severns. “I wanted the shot because I felt like I haven’t been playing very good. It was a total team effort tonight. We all stuck with it after the first half. Even though we didn’t play very well, we were only down by eight,” said Severns. “We knew we could come back and win this game.”
“It was like a heavyweight fight, and both opponents were exchanging blows,” said Kaufman. “Neither one was staggering the other. They are a good team, and their pressure gave us fits all night.”
Severns finished with 15 points leading Mount Vernon. Scott had eight points, eight rebounds and four steals; senior Cuy Sheffield had five points, four rebounds, two steals and three assists; and Bien had five points and six rebounds.
“Bien, Cuy and Ben really played big for us,” Kaufman said. “Those three seniors have been in this situation before, and they rose to the occasion. They led us; they put the team on their shoulders. One person wasn’t trying to do a whole lot. Everyone was working together, which has been the characteristic of our team all year. In tough situations, that’s what you have to lean one, each other.”
Six-foot-6 Max VanMeter led Westerville Central with nine points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Brown finished with eight points, and Fernandez added seven points and three assists.
Grove City will be a formidable foe for the Jackets. With 6-foot-7 post Jon Smith in the post, the No. 3 seed Greyhounds present many challenges. They are capable of running away from a team, as evidenced by their 95-66 win over Lancaster on Saturday.
“Grove City is a good team. We are definitely going to have to show up for that game,” said Severns. “Our posts are going to have to keep it up, and our guards will have to keep control of the ball.”
The district semifinal will be played on Saturday at 11:45 a.m.