By Jeff Louderback
More than an hour passed before Centerville head coach Brook Cupps emerged from the Elks locker room to meet a group of reporters and talk about his program’s 59-41 loss to top-ranked, undefeated and defending state champion Cincinnati Archbishop Moeller in the regional final.
The cordial Cupps, who recorded his 300th career victory as a high school basketball coach earlier this season, offered a genuine, “Sorry, guys” and followed with a description of the lengthy heartfelt team gathering.
“I thanked the seniors and reflected on their success, and how valuable they have been to the program, their teammates and the community,” Cupp said. “The goals this season centered around moving the program forward and representing their uniform with respect by how they played and how they carried themselves. Each senior talked about what they did to move the program forward, and teammates had a chance to talk about the seniors’ contributions and what they mean to the team.”
Even amid the heartache that each player and coach was undoubtedly feeling after their deep tournament run reached an end, the locker room erupted in periodic clapping and cheering as each senior addressed the team.
After winning the regional semifinal last Wednesday against Springfield, Centerville returned to the Cintas Center on Saturday to face Moeller without senior point guard Ryan Marchal, and with 6-foot-9 junior center Mo Njie playing with a swollen ankle. Njie suffered the injury in the final minutes of the regional semifinal, and Marchal was whistled for two inexplicable technical in a 35-second span around the same time frame.
OHSAA rules mandate that any player or coach who receives two technical is ejected from the game, and is hit with a two-game suspension. Centerville’s athletic department filed an appeal, and video footage clearly shows that the officials’ ejection report does not reflect what actually happened in those plays. Still, the OHSAA denied the appeal, and Marchal was ineligible to take the court.
It was a monumental task for the Elks, who finished the season at 22-6 and saw their 18-game win streak broken by the last team to beat them before the surge started. Led by West Virginia University commit Miles McBride, and a cast of talented and fundamentally-sound teammates, Moeller has not lost to an Ohio team since the 2017 Division I state championship game. The Crusaders have now won 47 in a row dating to last year.
“Moeller has seven guys who can really play the game. Several of them will be Division I players, and not just Miles McBride,” Cupps said. “They are disciplined, play tough defense, get high-percentage shots, and they are well-coached and well-prepared.
“I wasn’t disappointed with our overall effort,” Cupps added. “We did not finish around the rim as we should have, and we for some reason did not make our free throws, but the effort and intensity were there.”
The Elks led, 11-10, in the final moments of the first quarter, helped by three-pointers from seniors Davis Mumaw and Matt Pearce. Fellow senior Kaleb Mitchell played swarming defense against McBride, who was 1-for-4 from the field before landing a three-pointer with four seconds left to lift Moeller ahead, 13-11.
It was a lead the Crusaders would not relinquish, as they extended the advantage to 27-19 at halftime and 40-26 entering the fourth quarter. The Elks did stage a few bursts of momentum. Pearce buried a three-pointer to transform a 30-19 deficit to 30-22 early in the third quarter, and then Mitchell connected on a layup, courtesy of a Mumaw assist, to trim Moeller’s lead to 30-24.
Yet every time the Elks appeared to be on the verge of building sustained momentum, Moeller’s ball movement, patience, and positioning on offense resulted in an array of offensive rebounds, second-chance baskets and first-chance three-pointers and high-percentage buckets.
Mitchell paced Centerville with nine points, and he also pulled down eight rebounds and dished out a pair of assists. Pearce and Mumaw added eight points apiece. Njie was limited to two points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field, along with four rebounds. He blocked five shots and altered several others.
“Mo’s ankle was bothering him. He didn’t practice for two days,” Cupps said. “He never complained, but you could tell he was unable to get lift on his shots.”
Moeller converted 80 percent (12-for-15) of its free throws, outrebounded Centerville, 31-20, and shot 56.4 (22-for-39) from the field. The Elks uncharacteristically struggled from the free throw line (6-for-15, 40 percent), and Moeller’s stifling defense limited them to a 36.6 percent (15-for-41) mark from the floor. The Crusaders held Winton Woods to 15 points in the district final, and then defeated Lakota East, 47-33, in the regional semifinal as the Thunderhawks were 9-for-31 (29 percent) from the field.
McBride finished with 13 points, five rebounds and six assists while sophomore Alex Williams was 7-for-7 from the floor and led the Crusaders with 16. Junior guard Max Land contributed 15, six rebounds and three assists.
“When you play a team like Moeller, you have to make the most of your possessions, minimize turnovers, hit your shots around the rim and shoot a high percentage with your free throws,” Cupps said. “We didn’t do all of that. We could have executed better, but Moeller has won 47 consecutive games for a reason. They earned it.”