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Third time's a charm for Columbus Africentric

Daily Record Sports Writer

PICKERINGTON -- Columbus Africentric has been nipping at Hiland's heels for three years.

It took less than 60 seconds Saturday night for the Nubians to catch the Hawks and take a bite out of Hiland's bid for history.

Africentric's Shardai Morrison-Fountain scored 13 of her game-high 15 points in the second half and Hiland struggled to a 15-of-47 shooting performance, leading to the Nubians' 52-36 victory in a Div. IV regional final at Pickerington North High School.

"There's no excuses," Hiland coach Dave Schlabach said. "They made more plays than us.

"Their maturity level and the addition of (transfer Chynna) Bozeman was big. Plus, in the past they've had two, three, four kids -- this year they had six legitimate scorers."

Ashar Harris (10 points), Shi'Neice Cox (10 points, four assists) and Tyeasha Moss (9) added to Africentric's (25-1) balanced attack, which handed three-time state champion Hiland (21-5) its first regional loss in school history. The Hawks had won their previous 17, advancing to the State Final Four in 1989, 1990, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Africentric, consecutive Associated Press state poll champions in just its fourth year of OHSAA affiliation, also avenged regional setbacks to Hiland (No. 4 in the AP poll) each of the last two seasons. And Hiland, winner of back-to-back Div. IV state championships, will not match West Holmes as the only public schools in state history to win three consecutive titles.

Freshman Hilary Weaver dropped in three 3-pointers for Hiland, matching junior Jena Stutzman with nine points to lead the Hawks. Stutzman, the Eastern District Player of the Year and an All-Ohioan a year ago, shot just 4-of-19 from the floor and 0-of-7 on 3-pointers. Hiland made 4-of-17 beyond the arc.

"At the end of the day, Berlin Hiland is still the defending state champs and a well-coached team," Africentric coach Will McKinney said. "We had to do two things: Stop the back-door (pass), their Princeton offense, and knock down some perimeter shots.

"I told our kids, 'Don't be afraid to shoot it and shoot it with confidence.'"

The 5-foot-3 and 90-pound Morrison-Fountain, just a sophomore, must have been listening.

She hit 6-of-11 from the floor, including 3-of-7 from 3-point range. All the long-ball makes came in the third quarter, when Africentric held off Hiland's push to lead 33-26 entering the final stanza.

The Nubians then all but sealed the deal in the first 49 seconds of the final frame. While Hiland had three turnovers and missed its lone shot attempt, Africentric scored three times to lead 39-26. It's final two hoops came from Cox and Morrison-Fountain, directly after steals.

From there, Africentric used the clock as its ally and held on despite a scoreless drought of 6:15.

"My coaches told me they wanted me to get more involved offensively. They told me it was time to take over the game," Morrison-Fountain said. "Once we got the lead, coach told us to 'Stall the ball and not make any stupid turnovers.' That was the only way they were going to come back."

For the better part of 24 minutes, Hiland kept the game at its preferred tempo -- controlled and methodical. And behind players who hadn't seen the floor in regionals of past, such as 6-0 junior Kristi Yoder and Weaver, the Hawks were within striking distance after three.

Yoder had five points in the first four-plus minutes of the third quarter and Weaver drilled two 3-pointers in the stanza, pulling Hiland within 30-24 at the 1:24 mark. But Morrison-Fountain hit a right-corner 3-pointer on Africentric's ensuing possession and the Nubians followed with the key sprint to start the fourth quarter.

In terms of detriment, that stretch rivaled the final 5:35 of the opening half for Hiland. The Hawks missed their final seven shots of the opening half, and despite outrebounding the Nubians 15-14 and having just eight-first half turnovers, they trailed 17-10 at the break.

"Defensively, that first half was as good as we could have expected," Schlabach said. "We had the tempo where we wanted it, we were being physical, we weren't backing down. But you've got to make shots and we didn't get ourselves to the free throw line, either. Four free throws in both games just isn't going to cut it.

"I don't ever want to get used to this (feeling) ... but sometimes you need to lose to realize what you play for," Schlabach added. "I'm not saying our kids didn't play to win, but getting beat at this level -- it will be interesting to see how things play out."

Courtesy The Daily Record, Wooster, Ohio

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