DAYTON — The celebration was a long time coming for Lakota East High School’s boys basketball team.
The Thunderhawks took a gut-punch 53-51 loss to Princeton in last season’s Division I district finals, but Saturday night was different. And much, much better.
Bash Wieland (18) and Grant Spicer (11) topped the scoring as East secured its first district championship since 2016 by fighting off Fairmont 50-36 in the third of four D-I district matchups at the University of Dayton Arena.
BOYS BASKETBALL COVERAGE
“Feels great, feels awesome,” Spicer said. “Coming into the locker room, entering the arena and just remembering what it felt like last year, we knew we didn’t want to feel that again. So we left it all on the court.”
“You can’t really describe it in words,” Wieland said. “I just felt like our team wanted to do it for the guys that couldn’t. I know (injured) Alex (Mangold) would love to be out here playing. I know our seniors from last year would love to cut down the net. So I just felt like we were doing it for them.”
The Thunderhawks (20-5) never trailed and had an answer for every Fairmont surge, shooting 50 percent from the floor and earning a 31-18 advantage on the glass.
East coach Clint Adkins called it a special night for his program.
“We exorcised some demons tonight,” he said. “This is awesome right here. You just look back over the course of the season and everything that these guys have put into it … the man hours, the tough practices, the days when it’s not fun to be around Coach Adkins … it’s worth it for a night like this.
“All year, this group has handled adversity. When things have gotten tough, they’ve come together. I’m very, very proud of these guys.”
The prize for the district victory is a regional semifinal against top-ranked Moeller (25-0), the defending state champion and owner of a 45-game winning streak. They’ll meet at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday at Xavier University’s Cintas Center.
The teams have already squared off once this year, with the Crusaders getting a 61-53 triumph in the Midwest King Classic on Jan. 20 at Middletown. East and Chaminade Julienne (62-55) are the only two teams to finish within single digits of Moeller in 2018-19.
“What we try to do in our nonleague schedule is play as many good teams as possible so when we get to this point, our guys aren’t intimidated,” Adkins said. “Moeller’s the best team in the state for a reason. But our guys aren’t going to be afraid. There’s nobody that expects us to win this game except the guys in this locker room. We’re going to come out and give them our best punch.”
Kaden Fuhrmann scored all eight of his points in the second half of Saturday’s game, and Nate Johnson chipped in seven. East’s defense was mostly very good, but when it broke down a bit, Fairmont was able to score in transition.
“I thought rebounding was the difference tonight,” Adkins said. “I thought we were absolutely phenomenal in our blockouts and how we pursued the ball. In terms of execution, I thought that’s where we were at our best tonight.”
Spicer grabbed seven rebounds, Wieland had six and Johnson added five for the Thunderhawks, who committed just six turnovers. Johnson dished out six assists and Wieland totaled five.
Firebirds coach Blair Albright certainly wasn’t surprised that East played well.
“As you’re researching and preparing for the game and you’re talking to coaches from all over, almost to a man, every single coach that I talked to, the very first word out of their mouth about these guys was ‘solid,’ ” Albright said. “We saw that tonight. They took care of the basketball. When they had to get a bucket, they did. I don’t think they ever really panicked.
“I did have some fear about if we would at some point kind of hit an emotional wall. I don’t know for sure if that’s what happened. What I do know for sure is we just got outplayed. They were fantastic tonight. We just weren’t able to do the things that we needed to do. You can kind of bemuse the reasons why all you want. I thought our guys did a great job of bouncing back from a rough start. They’re so good at executing that when you get behind a team like that, there’s not a ton of room for error.”
Kellan Bochenek marked 15 points and Ryan Hall scored 10 for Fairmont (17-9). The Firebirds fell behind 18-8 in the first eight minutes, and while they closed the gap to 21-18 at halftime, they couldn’t get any closer the rest of the way.
It was Wieland 8, Fairmont 0 in the first two minutes of the game. The East senior finished with 10 points in the opening quarter, including a pair of 3-pointers, and said the Firebirds weren’t defending him tightly.
“At first they were kind of sagging off me,” said Wieland, the Greater Miami Conference’s leading scorer. “I was a little confused. I’ve never seen that this year, so I just tried to adjust the best I could. They weren’t trying to deny me, and that’s what I’m used to.”
Fairmont shot 66.7 percent from the floor in the first half, 25 percent thereafter. The Firebirds were trying to win their first district championship since 1995.
Albright said it was a very difficult week for his players. They’re dealing with the recent death of a Fairmont student who was a former member of the basketball program.
“To be honest, I think they’re just emotionally spent,” Albright said after the game. “Obviously there’s a lot of disappointment and that’s natural. There’s also a lot of heartbreak. As I told them, be disappointed about the game … be heartbroken about the other stuff.
“You should never let an athletic contest or the result of an athletic contest break your heart. Us adults know and they found out there are much bigger things in life that are worthy of breaking your heart. They’ll realize years from now that the bond they’ve created through these last couple weeks is something they’ll carry with them forever.”
Saturday’s other district-final results at UD were as follows — Moeller 57, Winton Woods 15; Centerville 49, Mason 43; Springfield 55, Elder 35. Springfield will face Centerville at 8 p.m. on Wednesday at XU.
Lakota East 18-3-9-20—50
FAIRMONT (17-9): Ryan Hall 3 4 10; Kellan Bochenek 5 4 15; Andre O’Daniel 1 0 2; Jesse Reliford 2 0 4; Kaleb Hall 2 0 5. Totals: 13-8-36
LAKOTA EAST (20-5): Kaden Fuhrmann 3 2 8; Bash Wieland 6 4 18; Will Johnston 2 0 4; Grant Spicer 5 1 11; Nate Johnson 2 3 7; Nick Holtman 1 0 2. Totals: 19-10-50
3-pointers: F 2 (Bochenek, K. Hall), L 2 (Wieland 2)