OT loss to Nubians in regional final leaves Lady Hawks feeling the bitterness of being so close


How do you handle so much heartache? The Hiland Lady Hawks are finding out.

Early in the year Hiland head coach Dave Schlabach spoke about the Lady Hawks’ move to Div. III this season. He knew the obstacles his team would face, and he knew above all that sooner or later his team would run into powerful Africentric, a team that has dominated Div. III play in recent years.

Schlabach spoke about wanting to test his team against the very best, and he got his wish in a Div. III regional final showdown with the Nubians on Saturday, March 10 at Marietta College. What took place was a game for the ages between two of Ohio’s finest girls basketball programs, regardless of what division they are in.

While things looked great for Hiland with 90 seconds to play and a six-point lead, the jubilation evaporated as Africentric showed why it is considered one of the best programs in the state, overcoming the six-point deficit, forcing overtime and winning 61-60 on a free throw with 1.4 seconds to play.

“I want to put this one out of my memory quickly,” said coach Schlabach, who was seeking a record 16th appearance at the state tournament. “We had them where we wanted them with a nice lead late, but no lead is safe with those guys. With a minute to go we were in great shape. It just got away from us.”

The game was an absolute classic, featuring two great teams who have faced each other in pressure situations eight times now. Both teams have won four times, and all of the games have been incredibly competitive.

Coach Schlabach put together a very difficult schedule this year to challenge his team and to prepare them for this very game. It didn’t take a lot for anyone to see the collision course these two juggernauts were on.

“Berlin Hiland versus Africentric,” Africentric head coach William McKinney said. “If this ain’t the best girls basketball rivalry in the state of Ohio, I don’t know what is. We’ve split the series four to four. It doesn’t get too much better than this. This is Duke versus North Carolina. This is state championship basketball right here.”

Jordan Horston scored a pair of buckets inside and hit a 3-pointer to spot Africentric to an early 11-6 lead, but the Lady Hawks tied it on a Tiffany Weaver score inside and a Brynn Mullet triple. The teams traded buckets until Mullet connected on her second trey, and Hiland held a 16-15 advantage after one quarter.

Africentric retook the lead in the second quarter when Nyam Thorton stroked a three and Alexia smith scored inside, which kick-started a scoring frenzy in the second period. Weaver scored three points to push Hiland up by one, and Africentric answered back with five straight, culminating on a sweet drive in the paint from Horston that made it 29-26 Nubians. Weaver’s two scores kept Hiland close at 32-30, and then Zoe Miller scored on a put-back and Morgan McMillen hit an acrobatic drive to send Hiland into the locker room leading 34-32.

It was more back-and-forth play in the third period. Horston hit two free throws, and Sakima Walker netted a jumper to give Africentric the lead at 41-38. The Lady Hawks came right back when Morgan Yoder scored inside off a great pass from Kennedy Schlabach, and Hiland hit 2-of-4 free throws, leaving the Nubians up 43-42 heading into the fourth period.

With the Nubians up 45-44, Hiland dug deep and pushed out to a 51-45 lead. Yoder connected on a 3-pointer, and Weaver hit two free throws and scored a bucket inside with just under five minutes to play.

Hiland extended its lead to its biggest of the game at seven points moments later when McMillen hit a short jumper and Kennedy Schlabach split two free throws. With 1:44 left, Hiland led 54-47, but Africentric would show real guts in clawing back. Terra Cook completed an and-one with 1:39 to play.

“They play great defense, and they finish around the basket, but when we were down there, I told our kids that we were about to come back,” McKinney said. “I probably didn’t believe it myself, but I wanted to give them some inspiration, and we happened to come back.”

McMillen hit two free throws, but Smith answered quickly with a drive to trim the deficit to 56-50.

Hiland missed the front end of a one-and-one, and with 1:12 left Smith drove for two more to trim the Hiland lead to 56-52. A Hiland turnover and a miss with a score from Maliyah Johnson and Cook evened the count at 56 with 26 seconds to play. Hiland ran the clock down for the last shot, and while Kennedy Schlabach drove to the hole and was hounded the whole way, she couldn’t draw a whistle, and her shot caromed off the glass and the front iron, sending the game to overtime.

“I thought we did a really good job handling their pressure,” coach Schlabach said. “We had a couple of turnovers at a couple of inopportune times, and we didn’t convert some free throws. Nothing against our kids. I thought we did just about everything we could possibly do to win this game.”

Smith put the Nubians up two early with a drive, and the Lady Hawks came up empty on their first two possessions, but Mullet came up with a huge steal, and Kennedy Schlabach was fouled, splitting the two free throws to trim Africentric’s lead to 58-57 with 1:27 to play.

Then on a huge play, Antonette Williams missed two free throws, but her teammate Cook grabbed the second miss and stuck it back in for a 60-57 lead. It was Hiland’s turn to make a big play, and Kennedy Schlabach did, moving around a pick into the corner, where she took a pass and nailed a 3-pointer to tie the score at 60 with 28 seconds.

The talented Horsten then stood out front with time winding down, making a move with five seconds to play. She darted down the lane, and instead of shooting, found Thorton on the left block, where she grabbed the ball, went up and was fouled with 1.4 seconds to play. She calmly sank the first free throw and missed the second with Hiland quickly calling time-out. Miller inbounded a long pass to mid-court, but it was intercepted by Iyanna Hairston, and the game ended in heartbreak for the Lady Hawks and jubilation for the Nubians.

“We are a young group, and we are inexperienced, but we showed up today, and I was proud of them,” McKinney said of his team. “That wasn’t a gut check; it was a heart check. This is going to be us and Hiland every time. It’s going to boil down to who has the ball at the end of the game with lots of lead changes. It’s going to be epic, and most of the time it is going to be overtime or a two- or three-point win. Without a shadow of a doubt this was the toughest game we’ve played this year, against one of the most epic and classiest programs in the state of Ohio. That is one of the hardest working programs with a hall-of-fame coach. It doesn’t get too much better than this.”

For Hiland it could have gotten two points better. Now coach Schlabach has to bid adieu to a senior group that has a very special meaning to him and his staff, including his daughter Kennedy, an All-Ohio four-year starter, and McMillen, another All-Ohioan who like Kennedy Schlabach is a 1,000-point scorer. They, along with three-year veteran shooting guard Sara Keim, will leave an empty hole in this team.

“It’s tough to say goodbye,” coach Schlabach said. “Leadership is earned, not granted, and these kids have earned their leadership stripes. Morgan is the toughest kid I have ever coached, and Kennedy has been my point guard for 120 games, so those are some big holes to fill.”

As for preparing for the tall task of facing a giant in Africentric, Hiland was as well prepared as it possibly could have been.

“We’re proud of these kids,” coach Schlabach said. “In the end my staff probably put 100 hours into studying Africentric, and our kids put 10 or 12 years into this game. There are no regrets, other than the last minute of the game, where we could have done some things differently. This was most likely a state championship game.”

McKinney agreed, and he actually had the choice to go to the Pickerington or Marietta regional, and he chose Marietta, which was originally to take place in Logan, Ohio, because of the proximity to his school. He didn’t realize after they had chosen that option that Hiland would be rising through the ranks to meet them in regionals rather than at state.

That move almost cost his team a trip to Columbus, and it is one that he probably won’t make again.

“This is a special game,” McKinney said. “And the funny thing is I chose to go to Logan because I thought it was closer. Normally I go to Lexington, but when I realized Hiland was actually in the regional, I was like, ‘Oh man, that’s not good.’ Next year I am going to have to call Dave and say, ‘Hey brother, let’s figure this out so we can meet in Columbus.’ We may just have to go back to Lexington.”

In a rivalry that is so closely entwined that each school program has split with the other team evenly and each has won five state titles, it will be Africentric that will advance to play for a state-tying record sixth title, not Hiland.

In tournament play, one team’s joy is another team’s pain, and when the pain is this excruciating, it doesn’t go away easily. However, as coach Schlabach and the Lady Hawks know, sometimes that pain can be a driving force for the future. That is where they will turn their anger and bitterness following a loss that cuts so deeply.