Every year in March, special player rises to the occasion and leads their teams to victory. So far this month in Columbus, Kevin Vannatta has been that special player. Leading Upper Arlington with 27 points and 19 rebounds on Saturday, Vannatta did anything and everything to lead the Golden Bears to its first regional title in 75 years in a convincing 50-36 win over Northland.
Discipline wins games in March, and Upper Arlington has a lot of it. Holding Northland to a season-low 36 points on Saturday, Upper Arlington gave the Vikings fits with its stout interior defense and quality weak-side rotation. Jumping out to a 21-8 advantage midway through the second quarter, Upper Arlington would survive an 11-2 run by the Vikings at the end of the half to head into the break with a 23-19 lead.
Beginning the third quarter much like the first, Upper Arlington raced out to a 28-21 lead midway through the period behind the scoring of Vannatta. As Northland ended the third on a 10-4 run, the Vikings looked to have Upper Arlington right where they wanted, going into the final frame trailing 32-31.
As each teams traded blows in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, Northland sophomore Seth Towns went to the line for two big free throws with 6:41 remaining. With an opportunity to give Northland its first lead of the game, Towns missed both attempts from the charity stripe, as Upper Arlington regained possession after a big break. As Northland failed to capitalize on primetime chances down the stretch, Upper Arlington would take advantage.
Scoring nine points in the fourth quarter, Vannatta would knock down five-of-six attempts from the free throw line, continuing a streak of clutch play late in games this postseason.
After Northland senior Jhustus Cornley knocked down one-of-two attempts from the line to cut the Golden Bear lead to 34-32 with 4:25 remaining, Vannatta would score off the back door feed from senior guard Danny Hummer, putting Upper Arlington ahead 36-32 with 3:04 to go.
After Vannatta's driving lay in, Northland would not get closer than within four points, as Upper Arlington closed the game on a 14-4 run in the final three minutes.
Senior Northland point guard Shemar Waugh would struggle from the free throw line in the final minutes, as the Ohio Dominican commit missed the front end of two one-and-ones, failed attempts that could have sliced the Upper Arlington lead in half each time.
Senior forward Harrison Heath would score off a feed from Vannatta with 1:27 remaining, putting Upper Arlington ahead 40-34, and seemingly putting a nail in Northland's coffin.
As the Vikings struggled to find offense late in Saturday's game, Upper Arlington closed on a 10-2 run in the final minute and a half, securing the Golden Bears' first trip to the state final four since 1938-39.
With a monster 27-point, 19-rebound performance in the books, Vannatta completed one of the greatest runs in Fairgrounds Coliseum history for an individual player, scoring 80 points and pulling down 30 rebounds in wins over Gahanna, Pickerington Central and Northland, three major powers in Central Ohio. Vannatta out-rebounded the entire Northland team as the Vikings totaled just 18 boards, despite holding a major size advantage in the front court.
For the Vikings, Waugh led the way with 11 points and three rebounds, while senior forward Jaylen Tucker added 10 points. No other Northland player would score more than six points, as the Vikings struggled to find quality looks in the half court for the entirety of Saturday's game. Limited due to foul trouble, the sophomore wing Towns finished with just three points, but added a team-high six rebounds.
For Upper Arlington, Vannatta's 27 points were a game-high, as the UNC-Asheville commit put his team on his back, as no other Golden Bear scored more than nine points. Senior guard and California import Wes Davis pitched in nine points, and three clutch free throws down the stretch, while no other Golden Bear scored more than four points. The senior guard Hummer had a difficult matchup vs. Waugh, but facilitated offense for Upper Arlington, going for a game-high five assists.
With the win, Upper Arlington advances to play Trotwood-Madison in the state semifinals on Fri. March 21. Trotwood-Madison is rolling after an upset win over Cincinnati Moeller on Friday in which the Rams trailed by double-digits in the fourth quarter before a Chris Mack three gave Trotwood its final lead with two seconds remaining.
Rolling off 25-consecutive wins dating back to Dec. 13, Upper Arlington is at a Wichita State level of "hot," and looks to keep rolling in the final four. With an athletic and defensive-minded Trotwood-Madison team awaiting on Friday, look for Upper Arlington to keep grinding out games with team-defense, team-rebounding, and the efficiency of Vannatta as the Golden Bears continue a storybook season.
By the Numbers
Team assists for Northland and points scored by Towns. As the sophomore wing was Northland's catalyst in the scoring department in the early part of the Vikings' postseason run, the 6'7 Towns was unable to find a rhythm as he was plagued with foul trouble for the majority of Saturday's game.
Number of wins for Upper Arlington in the postseason, assists for the Golden Bears and the highest number of rebounds for a Northland player on Saturday. Winners of 25-straight, Upper Arlington is putting together an historic season, and the Golden Bears have done it on teamwork, offensive efficiency, and rebounding, all supported by a stalwart defense. Upper Arlington is also six days away from its first state semifinal game in 75 years.
Total rebounds for Upper Arlington on Saturday. Securing 14 more rebounds than Northland, Upper Arlington boxed out excellently in the win, despite having just one player taller than 6'6, two less than what the Vikings featured.
Average number of points that Upper Arlington has given up in the postseason. Holding Gahanna (49 points), Pickerington Cenral (53 points), and Northland (36 points) to their lowest point totals of the season, Upper Arlington has been completely dominant on the defensive end.
Points scored by Vannatta in the last three wins vs. Gahanna, Pickerington Central and Northland. Taking down three powerhouse programs at the Coliseum in the last week, Vannatta has been the state's top player, averaging 26.7 points and 10 rebounds in those games.