Kevin Vannatta will not be denied. Scoring 29 points to lead Upper Arlington over Pickerington Central, Vannatta was key as the Golden Bears advance to the regional finals with a 63-53 victory. With Columbus juggernaut Northland awaiting in the regional finals, Vannatta and Upper Arlington look to keep rolling. Below are several thoughts from Thursday's semifinal contest.
1. Kevin Vannatta = Killer
Scoring 53 points in the last two games, the Upper Arlington senior Vannatta has been playing his best basketball when it matters most. Scoring 13 of Upper Arlington's first 14 points on Thursday, the North Carolina-Asheville commit was crucial as the Golden Bears fell behind 17-5 after one. Leading a 58-36 charge for the remaining 24 minutes, Vannatta and fellow senior guard Danny Hummer led an efficient offensive attack for Upper Arlington as the two consistently found their way into the lane for scores. Arguably the fiercest competitor in Central Ohio, Vannatta is never one to lose focus, and looks to be completely dialed in as of late. Adding on noticeable muscle since last season, Vannatta has become quite the force around the rim, in addition to being a deadly knockdown shooter from the perimeter.
2. Patience is a virtue
Allowing a 17-5 run to start Thursday's game, Upper Arlington looked to be in quite a bit of trouble as the Golden Bears settled for bad shots and failed to get back in transition defense in the first eight minutes of play. While most teams around Central Ohio would have been a bit rattled after such a sluggish start, Upper Arlington remained composed. Playing excellent team basketball, Upper Arlington took advantage of patient possessions, showcasing quality ball-movement, constantly finding the open man for easy scores. After trailing 26-20 at half, Upper Arlington used a 12-5 run to begin the half to take its first lead of the game after on a Vannatta three put the Golden Bears ahead 32-31 with 3:28 to go in the third. As Pickerington Central attempted a full-court press in the fourth quarter, Upper Arlington's fluid press breaker was too much for the Tigers, basically working as a layup drill as the Bears constantly found open looks in transition.
3. Team basketball wins in March
Arguably the most unselfish team in Central Ohio, Upper Arlington played ultimate team basketball on Thursday in the victory. Combining for 18 assists in the win over Pick Central, Upper Arlington's ball-movement and offensive efficiency was the difference in the second half. Outscoring the Tigers 43-27 in the second half, Upper Arlington handled suffocating perimeter pressure from Pick Central, moving the ball around until an open shot presented itself. Possibly the Golden Bears' greatest trait, Upper Arlington's team defense stifled the Tigers' offense in the second half, as Vannatta, Hummer, and the UA supporting cast stayed disciplined on the defensive end to force Pick Central into difficult shots. Outside of Vannatta and Hummer's 42 combined points, senior forward Logan Richter pitched in eight points, highlighted by a powerful one-handed slam to put an exclamation point on Thursday's game. Junior forward Griffin Caldwell played an impressive game off the bench, finishing with six points and three assists, while playing solid defense on Pickerington Central guard Connor Kern.
4. Checks and Balances
Continuing an impressive senior season, Pickerington Central guard Kern had another great night offensively. Scoring a team-high 23 points, Kern was the lone consistent scorer for the Tigers, as the 6'3 guard was able to stretch the floor and reach the line on Thursday. However, Kern didn't receive the support he had anticipated, as no other Pick Central scorer added more than 14 points. While junior combo-guard Rodney Culver and sophomore wing Jalen Tate each battled foul trouble in the second half, Kern was looked to provide the bulk of the Tiger offense, as the underclassmen wings combined for just 21 points on the night. Outside of Kern, Tate and Culver, the rest of the Pickerington Central roster combined for just nine points, led by sophomore point guard DJ Tyree's seven points off the bench.
5. It pays to be hot.....and good
With the win on Thursday, Upper Arlington now sits at 25-1 on the season. The more impressive statistic, however, is the Golden Bears 24-consecutive wins. Barring a buzzer-beating 34-31 loss at home to Olentangy Liberty on Dec. 13, a game in which Vannatta was held to a season-low four points, Upper Arlington has been the hottest team in the state of Ohio. Winning with offensive efficiency and suffocating defense, the Golden Bears have held 24 of its 26 opponents to less than 50 points. As Pickerington Central scored a season-high 53 points on Upper Arlington on Thursday, Vannatta and the Golden Bears held the Tigers to 20 points under their season-average of 73.1 points per game. With a different monster in Northland awaiting on Saturday, it will be intriguing to see if Upper Arlington's defensive prowess continues. As Northland allowed Dublin Coffman to get to the free-throw line just seven times on Wednesday, the Vikings will have to keep Vannatta and the Bears out of the lane on Saturday. Attempting 23 free throws on Thursday, Upper Arlington took advantage of its opportunities at the charity stripe, converting on 19 of its attempts. Something will have to give on Saturday as two teams with opposing styles square off for a trip to the state final four.
By the Numbers
Let's take a look at some of the key statistics to Thursday's regional semifinal matchup.
Field goals for Rodney Culver. Limited on Thursday due to foul trouble, Culver had a difficult night on the offensive end. Having twice as many fouls as field goals, Culver's ineffectiveness on Thursday certainly played a major factor in Upper Arlington's victory. One of the breakout performers in Central Ohio this season, Culver ends a successful junior season with a more-than-forgettable seven-point performance.
Upper Arlington's seed in the Central District and the number of wins the Golden Bears could have over top-six seeded teams with a win over Northland on Saturday. Already knocking off No. 2 seed Gahanna-Lincoln last Saturday, Upper Arlington will have a chance to take down the top overall seed Northland this weekend.
Upper Arlington attempted and made six more free-throws than Pickerington Central on Thursday, a six-point swing that might have been the difference. As Upper Arlington consistently attacked the lane, often times drawing contact and foul calls, Pickerington Central didn't have as much luck on the other end. Albeit outscoring Upper Arlington 15-6 from behind-the-arc, Pickerington Central was not as effective around the rim on Thursday.
Consecutive wins for Upper Arlington. Sitting at 25-1, the Golden Bears are easily the hottest team in Ohio. If UA manages to run the table, there would certainly be a valid argument for this team being one of the greatest in state history, record-wise.
The highest number of points Upper Arlington has allowed this season. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Northland has been held under 53 points just four times in 2013-14.
Points Vannatta and Hummer were responsible for on Thursday. As Vannatta finished with 29 points and three assists, Hummer played an excellent game, finishing with 13 points and five assists. Best friends since the first grade, Vannatta and Hummer play with a level of chemistry that is rare to find in modern day high school basketball.
Years since Upper Arlington's last and only state championship in 1937. Three tough wins away from a state championship, Upper Arlington has a more than impressive resume at the moment, featuring three-consecutive wins over quality opponents in Grove City, Gahanna and Pickerington Central.
Minutes since Upper Arlington's last loss on Dec. 13. With a challenging hill to climb vs. Northland, don't be surprised if Vannatta & Co. keep rolling on Saturday.
Credit to Brandon Little for some of Thursday's intriguing numbers.