LEXINGTON – Making a long tournament run is every basketball player’s dream come March.
The ugly reality is that unless you take that dream to a state title, your last game will end in defeat.
That cold, hard truth came became real when Evergreen’s historic tournament run ended as they fell in the Division III regional final to private school power Columbus Africentric, 59-55 before an electric and raucous crowd of 1,500, predominantly Viking followers at Lexington High School Saturday afternoon.
It was a battle of the Vikings’ sensational seven that turned into a scintillating six with the well documented season-ending injury to the Vikings’ roadrunner-like point guard Alyssa Noe, versus the hand-picked skyscrapers from the state capitol that had no less than six players from 5’10” to 6’1”.
After spotting the Nubians a 4-0 lead, Evergreen rifled off 10 straight points courtesy of Eden Eisel’s two free throws, a dump inside from Eisel to Haili Mossing for a layup, a Mossing three-ball and Hannah Herr’s fastbreak three-point play to take a six point lead.
Africentric countered with a Dejae Denham triple and Kynnedy Azubike’s steal and basket to chop the lead to one before Becca Jankowiak drilled a long three from the right wing with just over a minute left in the first.
However, Zhaira Lenoir began what would become a trend for the day, scoring in the last 10 seconds of the first to cut the Vikings four point lead in half, 13-11.
Eisel drove into the trees of the Africentric defense and scored on a pair of layups to get Evergreen back up 17-12 at the 7:19 mark of the second.
Lenoir’s drive with 5:48 left in the half got the Nubians even at 19 before Herr’s left-handed slice through the key regained a Viking lead.
A couple of Chyna Chambers free throws knotted the score again, but Kaela Fauble’s bank shot untied it with 5:04 to go.
The much taller Nubian lineup began taking a toll as Africentric caught and passed the Vikes on putback baskets from Denham and Iyana Hairston to forge a 30-27 lead.
Rachael Noe brought Evergreen back into a tie with a long distance three-ball and yet another slash to the rim by Eisel put Evergreen up with 28 seconds left in the half.
But again it was Lenoir with a last chance try for Africentric and she made good on a triple with 14 ticks left to give her team a 33-32 halftime lead.
“Number 1 (Lenoir) shot the ball tremendously for them today,” said Viking mentor John Langenderfer. “When I scouted them, she didn’t make anything. So give them credit.”
Noe gave the Vikings a two point lead with another long three 21 seconds into the third before the teams went back-and-forth scoring.
Herr’s penetration no-look pass to Mossing for a three-pointer broke a 37 all tie with 5:05 left in the third but Lenoir had an answer 90 seconds later with a three-ball and Azubike’s jumper gave Africentric a 42-40 lead.
Eisel came right back with a basket against the press, then split at the foul line giving Evergreen a 43-42 lead.
Again it was Lenoir, first regaining the lead for the Nubians with two from the foul line and for the third straight quarter, a last second shot, this one a triple, to boost the Nubian lead to 47-43 going into the final eight minutes.
From that point Africentric spread the floor and the Vikings began to tire defensively as Lenoir got to the rim three times to put Africentric up 10 with 4:44 left.
“We just got gassed,” said Langenderfer. “We got a little tired in the second, then in the third and fourth quarter and that team was just relentless with the pressure, they didn’t give us a break the whole time.”
Still the Vikings found enough in the reserve tank for one last run.
Herr stripped Chambers at half court and when she was fouled going to the glass, the sophomore guard knocked both free throws home. And when Denham fouled her on the second shot, Herr drilled two more which sliced the lead to six.
Lenoir’s basket, giving her 13 straight Nubian points made it 55-47.
After two Eisel free throws, Azubike cashed both ends of the bonus with 44 seconds left to again make it an eight point game.
Noe locked in and connected from way out on the left side to chop the score to 57-52 with 33 seconds left and after a Nubian turnover Evergreen had another chance to cut into the lead.
However, one last quick steal by Africentric ended with Azubike again hitting a pair of foul shots to in essence put the game away.
Noe had one last answer with another triple, her fourth without a miss on the day, but Africentric didn’t even have to inbound the ball as the last five seconds ran out on the Vikings 24-win season.
For the game Lenoir was the only Nubian in double figures with 25 on 9 of 13 from the floor.
Evergreen had four players hit double digits as Eisel and Mossing each had 13, Noe 12 and Herr 10.
Evergreen shot 45 percent from the floor and smoked the nets at 47 percent from the three-point arc while Africentric was 21 of 51 for 42 percent.
The Nubians had 30 rebounds to 25 for Evergreen and forced 17 turnovers while committing only 10.
After it was all over, Langenderfer spoke of the season the Vikings had.
“Our kids just played as hard as they could, give them a lot of credit for battling their butts off. It’s a great ride, you win 24 games there’s a lot of happy moments.
“The hard fact is this is a kind of a bitter pill to swallow after all we’ve done.”
The other hard fact is that about 280 Division III girls teams in the state of Ohio wish they could have been playing basketball like the Vikings were on this day.
Joe Blystone can be reached at [email protected]