COLUMBUS — Coming off of arguably one of the biggest upsets in the last decade, Mount Vernon’s magical playoff run crossed paths with the 10th-seeded Raiders. The 16th-seeded Yellow Jackets stunned Reynoldsburg’s OCC-Ohio division rival and top-seeded Pickerington North in their district semifinals contest by a score of 61-58 on the same night the Raiders used a late surge to win 69-48 over Westerville Central in its district semifinals contest. Reynoldsburg therefore found itself in its first district title game since 2012, while the Yellow Jackets made an improbable appearance in the district championship for the first time since 1993. Although both sides of the stands were eventually filled at Ohio Dominican University by the 5pm tip on Saturday March 10th, the Mount Vernon faithful packed their side of the stands about an hour before the game, as four buses of students and a multitude of other loud, spirited Yellow Jackets fans made the 41-mile drive and made the district finals almost feel like a true road game for the Raiders.
But the Raiders were determined to not suffer the same fate of their division rivals and quieted the opposing crowd early.
Reynoldsburg (19-7) raced out to an early 25-5 lead and prevented Mount Vernon (18-8) from scoring a field goal for the first 9:35 of regulation. The Yellow Jackets would make a late first half run to get within ten points of the Raiders at halftime, but would get no closer as Reynoldsburg dominated from start to finish to spoil Mount Vernon’s upset bid en route to a 51-36 victory and the district title.
Even crazier for the Raiders was the fact that, despite jumping out to that big lead early, leading scorer and senior forward Tre Williams found himself in rare foul trouble early in the game. He was called for two fouls not even a minute apart from each other just over halfway into the opening quarter, and sat for the remainder of the half as a result.
“It feels great; we’ve been wanting this all season and have been working hard in practice just for this,” Williams said after the game of the Raiders’ third district title in school history (2006, 2012, 2018). “We just have to keep it going. My teammates did a huge job and stepped up pretty well. They kept the lead and got it to ten at the half even when I was out.”
Junior guard Ben Fort, who led all scorers with 17 points, was a big part of Reynoldsburg’s hot start.
Both teams struggled out of the gate, coming up empty on offense on their first three possessions each with one turnover a piece. The Raiders used its size advantage to cash in defensively, forcing tough three-point attempts by the Yellow Jackets that didn’t fall, which led to first-chance rebounds by Reynoldsburg. Senior forward Cole Crosby had two rebounds not even two minutes into the game as a result, and Fort would block a Mount Vernon shot and open the scoring with a layup in transition to give the Raiders a 2-0 lead with 5:30 left in the opening quarter.
Fort would score again not even a minute later thanks to a short jumper underneath the basket, while the Yellow Jackets were called for two consecutive walks. On the offensive end, Williams was called for his first foul halfway into the opening quarter, but would score a quick bucket in the post to make it 6-0 Reynoldsburg with 3:54 left in the period. He would however pick up his second foul 43 seconds after that and sit for the remainder of the first half, while the Yellow Jackets got on the board with two free throws after a foul on Fort to cut the lead to 6-2 with 2:49 left in the quarter. Reynoldsburg would score the final seven points of the period, with Fort hitting a layup, senior guard Jamiel Goliday sinking two free throws, senior forward Malcolm Murphy splitting another pair at the charity stripe, and Fort capping off an 8-point first quarter with a long two as time expired in the period to give the Raiders a 13-2 lead.
With the spirited Mount Vernon Hive screaming right behind him, junior guard Ben Fort (pictured) hits a long two-pointer to close out the first quarter of the district finals.
Fort would continue his amazing start in the 2nd quarter, connecting from downtown not even a minute into the period, but Mount Vernon would score its first field goal of the game with a shot from behind the arc to make it 16-5 Raiders with 6:25 left in the half. Senior guard Elijah Thurston would then answer from long range, while Goliday would also hit a three-pointer on the next possession to extend Reynoldsburg’s lead to 22-5 with 5:22 left in the second and force a Yellow Jackets timeout. Not even a minute later, Thurston would draw a foul and hit the layup, and the ensuing free throw gave the Raiders an impressive 25-5 lead with 4:24 left in the 2nd quarter.
But with its extremely spirited fans still cranking up the volume at Ohio Dominican University, Mount Vernon responded.
Crosby would be called for a foul, and the Yellow Jackets answered with a bucket-and-one with 3:40 left in the half. They would score again from down low, and Fort would score the last of his 13 points of the half to make it 27-10 Reynoldsburg with 2:45 left in the half. The Raiders would not score the rest of the period, Fort and Crosby each picked up their second fouls, and the Yellow Jackets scored the final seven points of the 2nd quarter to cap a 12-2 Mount Vernon run and cut Reynoldsburg’s lead to 27-17 at the break.
“We just came together as a whole and knew from the get-go that we had to stay humble,” Goliday said after the game. “We went [into halftime] knowing that we were not going to step off the gas pedal any time soon. We had to push it and I think that our guys knew what was going on, so we made that happen. And when we’re all locked in together, I think we’re very dangerous.”
He has been as dangerous as ever and would finish with another strong performance, scoring 14 points and hitting three buckets from behind the arc.
Both offenses came up empty for roughly the first four minutes of the 3rd quarter, as each defense engaged in a chess match out of the locker room. Although the Raiders were called for two travels, Mount Vernon went cold from behind the arc and missed out on key chances to get within single digits of Reynoldsburg. Goliday would then literally take matters into his own hands, scoring on an acrobatic layup, connecting from long range on the following possession, and then stealing a Yellow Jackets pass and splitting a pair of free throws to extend the Raiders’ lead to 33-17 with 3:36 left in the period.
Mount Vernon would finally get on the board on their next possession, but had to deal with the return of Williams. He would throw down two consecutive highlight-reel worthy dunks, with one of them an alley-oop toss from Fort, and would hit another easy bucket in the post despite sitting for most of the first half due to foul trouble. The Yellow Jackets would only score on a free throw and one more layup in the period, and Murphy would hit a three pointer as time expired to cap off a 15-5 period in favor of Reynoldsburg and a 42-22 lead going into the final eight minutes of regulation.
“My teammates told me that they were going to find me, and that I just had to do my job and finish,” Williams said of his third-quarter performance.
He didn’t seem very rattled despite sitting for most of the first half with two fouls, and picked up right where he left off with six quick points and dominating in the post to help hold Mount Vernon to five points in the quarter.
The Yellow Jackets would not go away without a fight though, scoring the first five points of the quarter to get within 15 points of the Raiders with 5:45 to go. From there, a pair of free throws from Thurston, four points from Fort, and a deep three from the hot-shooting Goliday for good measure kept the scoring even the rest of the way. The clock eventually struck midnight for what was easily this year’s Cinderella team in Mount Vernon, as Reynoldsburg’s fast start to the contest put the Yellow Jackets in too deep of a hole to overcome.
The Raiders therefore found themselves cutting down the nets at Ohio Dominican University and hoisting the district championship trophy thanks to what would be a 51-36 win over Mount Vernon, and the first district title for Raiders head coach Scott Davis.
“It started with the defensive end,” Davis said after the game. “We talked about being locked in defensively and I thought we got stops. We were able to get out in transition and make some plays, but defensively I just thought we had a great effort.”
Even more, for every player and specifically the six seniors on Reynoldsburg’s roster, this is their first district title. Reynoldsburg last won the title in 2012 by rallying for a 53-51 upset win over top-seeded Northland with former head coach Chris Ryder at the helm, when Wendell Davis famously went coast-to-coast for a buzzer-beating layup after rebounding a missed tie-breaking go-ahead jumper by the Vikings with six seconds to go.
But in the 2018 district title game, the Raiders started strong and the game’s outcome never seemed to be in doubt, as Reynoldsburg remained confident from start to finish and halted Mount Vernon’s momentum en route to their third championship in school history.
“It’s the group that started in 7th grade when I first got the job in Reynoldsburg six years ago,” Davis said after the game of what are now his six senior players. “This group and myself kind of came in at the same time together, and to wrap it up with a district title is fitting. I’m just very happy. Our kids and our coaching staff put in a lot of hard work, and to see it pay off here this year feels really good. I’m really happy with everyone who is associated with our basketball program, and there’s a lot of people that make this possible. I’m just really proud of everybody and their efforts, and this couldn’t have happened to a finer group of people.”
Now the district-champion Raiders, who are winners of four consecutive playoff games by an average margin of victory of 15 points, eight games in a row overall, and 11 of their last 13 games dating back to the regular season, are one of the last four teams standing what is a stacked Central Ohio playoff field. Reynoldsburg is therefore two wins from a regional title and a trip to the Schottenstein Center, and four more wins away from a state title that is becoming more and more within reach for this group of contenders.