Ironton ends as state runner-up

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 20, 2005

COLUMBUS - The North College Hill Trojans showed why they were ranked No. 1. The Ironton Fighting Tigers showed why they were ranked No. 2.

Or maybe it should have been No. 1-A.

Given little chance against the talent-laden Trojans and Mr. Basketball O.J. Mayo, the Fighting Tigers came within a whisker of a shocking upset before falling 71-65 Saturday in the Division III state championship at the Schottenstein Center.

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North College Hill (27-1) was expected to coast to the state title, but Ironton didn't listen to any of the negative talk as they took the Trojans to the wire.

"We don't fear anyone. We had our chances," Ironton coach Roger Zornes said. "It was like playing against an all-star team. They're very good.

Ironton center Cliff Howard, who at 6-foot-4 was dwarfed by the taller Trojans, proved fearless inside as he had a game-high 28 points and pulled down 16 rebounds. It was his second double-double of the state tournament and earned him all-tournament honors.

"Coach told us not to be scared and to play with heart. We did everything we felt we could," Howard said. "We knew we could play with them. We didn't care what the media said."

Junior guard Dennis Gagai scored 22 points and had seven rebounds. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter comeback including two key 3-pointers.

"I wanted the ball. I felt to win the game I had to hit some shots. We had our chances to win the game," Gagai said.

Mayo, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, led North College Hill with 22 points and six assists. Bill Walker, a 6-7 sophomore, had 19 points and 14 rebounds while the 6-foot-11 Keenan Ellis finished with 14 points and five blocked shots.

Zornes said the game plan to slow down the big trio was simple and he wanted Howard to be a key factor.

"I told Cliff before the game that Ellis couldn't stay with him because he was so much stronger and more mobile," Zornes said. "The kids followed our game plan to the letter. We wanted to clog up the middle because they were so big and force them to shoot from the perimeter. We wanted to limit them to one shot. We changed our defenses so they wouldn't get comfortable. We pretty much did that."

Ironton, ending the season 26-1, held a 41-34 rebound advantage.

Howard said his coach's assessment was correct.

"I knew if they went up , they were going to try and block the shot and I just went to the other side. I know I could get a basket or the foul," Howard said.

Howard had 8 points in the first quarter including two layups to cap a 6-0 run that gave Ironton a 21-17 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Mayo took only one shot in the first quarter but scored 8 points in the second quarter as North College Hill rallied to take a 40-35 halftime lead aided by the fact Ironton point guard Brigham Waginger went to the bench with three fouls.

Howard converted a 3-point play and followed up a missed shot as Ironton got within 44-43. Ellis had a layup, Mayo converted his own 3-point play, Ellis had a tip-in and Walker came up with a steal and slam dunk as the lead jumped to 53-43 at the 2:15 mark.

Howard's layup had Ironton within 55-47, but a layup by Walker off a lob pass put the lead at 57-47 heading into the fourth quarter.

A trey by Mayo to begin the fourth quarter opened up a 60-47 lead and Ironton's chances appeared bleak.

"That's an excellent team and a great coach," North College Hill Jamie Mahaffey said. "We had a run in the middle of the third quarter. They had a run at the end, but we were able to weather the storm."

Ironton's run began when Howard and Gagai hit layups, Gagai drained a trifecta and Howard made another layup. Gagai scored two straight baskets after Waginger picked up steals off Mayo and Damon Butler to cut the deficit to 64-63 with 1:52 to play.

"I thought we were in trouble, but then I saw Brigham on the floor with the ball, so I took off and scored. It got us back in the game and got us going and got our fans back in the game," Gagai said.

Ironton had two chances to tie or take the lead, but a turnover and two missed foul shots gave the Trojans a reprieve.

Butler scored inside and was fouled on a controversial blocking foul call. Butler also made the foul shot for a 67-63 lead with 30 seconds left.

After Ironton missed a shot, Mayo had a dunk

for a 69-63 lead.

Howard had a putback with five seconds left, but Mayo clinched the win by sinking two foul shots with one second to play.

The state championship was the first for North College Hill, but Mahaffey said Ironton kept the issue in doubt until the final horn. Ironton was making its second state appearance. The Fighting Tigers lost 65-62 to Wauseon in the 1994 semifinals.