COLUMBUS – Two weeks ago, even last week, some might have assumed that off-target loft Grant Hull sent rimward in the first quarter was just another miss for a struggling shooter.
But no, it was intentional and teammate Jeff Thomas knew just what to do with it. He grabbed the ball and slammed it home.
Norwalk was flying high one last time in the first half on Ohio high school basketball’s stage of stages and in the second half, the Truckers were steady and determined.
The combination meant a Division II state title as Norwalk downed last year’s champ, Columbus Bishop Watterson, 65-58 in front of 14,642 at Value City Arena Saturday.
“My biggest fear was that our lack of size might catch up with us at some point in time,” said Norwalk coach Steve Gray. “But I learned a long time ago, never question the heart of a champion. And these guys are champions.”
The foundation was laid with a 16-2 run over a five-minute span at the end of the first quarter and start of the second.
It began with the alley-oop pass from Hull to Thomas for a dunk that tied the game at 14-14 with 2:13 left in the first period.
“That was a designed play,” Thomas, a first-team All-Ohioan who totaled 18 points and 10 rebounds, said. “A lot of teams don’t know it. It’s kind of been our secret.”
Point guard Ben Haraway, who led Norwalk (29-1) with 29 points, three assists, three blocks and a steal, went to work with a couple layups in transition. Thomas then turned a steal into another dunk for a 20-14 Trucker lead at the quarter break.
The run continued after Watterson’s Matt Lehmann opened the second with a couple foul shots.
Back in a groove, Hull nailed a 3-pointer off an inbound pass, Breck Turner had a putback and Haraway drove for a three-point play to push the margin to 28-16 with 6:07 left in the half.
“That was huge, no question,” Watterson coach Vince Lombardo said. “We spent the rest of the game trying to battle back. We made some runs, but we couldn’t get all the way back.
“Norwalk did an outstanding job early attacking our zones,” he said. “They got good looks and they hit big shots.”
The Truckers went more than four minutes before their next score, but the defense only allowed three Matt Hughes points for Watterson during the stretch.
The Truckers hit 12-of-22 in taking a 31-19 halftime lead. Watterson managed just 6-of-25 at that point, including 1-of-9 from 3-point range.
Norwalk kept the Eagles at arm’s length, leading by as many as 14 and as few as seven before taking a 42-33 edge to the fourth.
There was a huge scare, however, when Haraway turned an ankle and suffered a slight twist of his right knee on a drive with 3:59 to go. He hit a foul shot for a 50-42 lead before going to the sideline.
“At first, I thought I was going to be out for a while,” Haraway said. “But once I got up and was able to walk a little, it was fine.”
“Oh my God,” Gray said of his first reaction to the injury. “I was concerned for his health obviously, but we’ve had other players step up all year and I just felt that Jeff or Grant, someone would take over. But I was happy when the trainer said he could go back in.”
The Eagles chipped at the lead and pulled to within four at 61-57 on Hughes’ layup with 52 seconds left.
“Down four, I was thinking if we could just get one more possession,” Hughes said, his voice trailing.
But Haraway’s total included 15 free throws and he was 12-for-16 in the fourth quarter. He converted four straight after the Hughes basket to seal it.
“I would have preferred (to foul) someone else, but obviously, he was the guy they wanted to have the ball,” Lombardo said.
Hull hit a couple 3-pointers and finished with eight points and four assists to back Haraway and Thomas. Turner scored five and Kaleb Cashen came off the bench to grab six rebounds.
Hughes had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Eagles (26-3). Cody Calhoun added 15 points and Lehmann finished with 11.
THREE FOR ALL Norwalk’s boys basketball championship is the third for a Northern Ohio League school in the 92 years of the state tournament.
Bellevue won the Class A championship in 1945 and Upper Sandusky claimed the Division II crown in 2005.
Norwalk also won a state football championship in 1974.
‘D’ IS THE BIG KEY What Norwalk did at the offensive end was fairly typical. The Truckers shot 48 percent from the field, 44 percent from 3-point range and 70 percent from the foul line.
More important was what they did at the defensive end. Watterson managed just 19-of-57 from the field, 4-of-24 from 3-point range. The Eagles missed 14 of their first 15 from long range.
“We wanted to give the post players looks outside of 15 feet, stay down and we wanted to stick with the point guard (Calhoun), who is just an unbelievable competitor,” Gray said. “And what about the job Jordan Johnson did on (Lehmann)? I thought he was unbelievable.”
Lombardo said he had hoped for better.
“I have great confidence in our shooting ability. My philosophy was pretty much to get out of the way of the offense,” he said. “We had some looks but today they didn’t go in. You certainly have to give credit to Norwalk for some of that.”
GRAY MORE THAN ONE UP Lombardo said Saturday’s championship game was not the first time the two have matched basketball wits.
“It was a long time ago but yes, when I was in Marion and he was at Ridgedale, we went up against each other,” Lombardo said. “Given the state of my team at Marion Catholic, he probably got me then, too.”
THIS TIME HE BELONGS During postgame, Gray shot a glance at long-time Ohio High School Athletic Association assistant Jim Wharton and told a story about a time he got an up-close view he shouldn’t have had for a past state tournament game.
“When (Norwalk assistant) coach (Tom) Foster was (assistant) coach at Lexington for the 1989 state tournament, a radio station gave me a credential so I could sit on press row,” Gray said. “That young man (Wharton) in the corner during the press conference must have said, ‘Who’s that guy?’ and he threw me out.
“I’m glad they let me stay in here today,” he said.
COMMUNITY HEROES Gray said his club’s state championship was well earned and much deserved.
“If we had lost in the district tournament, it really wouldn’t have been fair because these kids wouldn’t have gotten the respect they deserve,” Gray said. “But win or lose, these kids are people of great character and they represented themselves so well.
“And the young people in our community look up to them so much,” he said. “There was a fourth- and fifth- and sixth-grade banquet two Sundays ago and all the seniors were there signing autographs for the kids. They’re rock stars.”
That was just one more reason for Gray’s line during opening post-game comments. “It’s great to be a Trucker,” he said.