After a quick water break, the Newark Wildcats’ starting five stepped back onto the hardwood and started walking through halfcourt offense plays. 

They had just run a five-on-five scrimmage drill against the junior varsity squad at full speed. Now, Coach Jeff Quackenbush was slowing the Wednesday practice down so he could address the critiques he had of their performance. He saw some miscommunication and too much dribbling for his liking.

“In February and March, you gotta run the halfcourt offense better, and all five guys gotta know what they’re doing,” he said to the players.

In referencing “February and March,” Quackenbush alluded to the soon-approaching Ohio High School Athletic Association state playoffs. The team already knew they would be hosting Chillicothe the following Tuesday, Feb. 27.

But in the moment, Quackenbush and his players were prepping for one last regular season matchup: a Friday night duel with visiting Westerville Central. 

There was a lot at stake during Friday’s game. The Wildcats wanted to avenge the 29-point loss they suffered to the same opponent last season. It was senior night, and the matchup could help the team gauge where it stands before the start of postseason play.

“In the back of our heads, we all know that we’re doing things in practice that prepare us for the tournament,” senior Steele Meister, the Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division Player of the Year and a University of Findlay commit, said on Wednesday. “But we’re focused on Friday, because Friday’s a good test before the tournament.”

Meister was correct: Newark indeed faced a good test Friday. The Warhawks, who entered the game 13-8, took the lead 40 seconds into gameplay and never gave it back. They held the Wildcats to just three points in the first quarter, and three of their players finished the night with double-digit point totals. The team’s stifling defensive effort also limited the Wildcats to making only 35% of their shot attempts. Meister, who had been averaging 19 points per game according to the Newark Advocate’s Kurt Snyder, was limited to just 11.

Late-game magic almost absolved the Wildcats of their slow start, costly turnovers and a lack of consistent offensive rhythm, though.

With 2:10 remaining in the fourth quarter, the contest looked all but over. The Wildcats faced a 41-33 deficit.

Then, Ty Gilbert scored seven points in a span of about 30 seconds.

The sophomore had only connected on one of his previous four three-point attempts. But with 2:08 remaining in the fourth quarter, he hit a contested triple from the right wing.

Sophomore Ty Gilbert was recently named to the All-Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division Second Team. Credit: Andrew Theophilus

On the next Wildcat possession, he got fouled shooting from beyond the arc at the top of the key. He made the basket anyway, as well as the ensuing free throw attempt, pushing the score to 41-40.

Westerville Central stretched its lead back to four points, but Jake Quackenbush, another Newark sophomore, buried a three-pointer of his own from the right corner with 53 seconds on the game clock to make the score 45-44. Westerville Central junior Josh Henderson hit two free throws at the 44.5 second mark, but Newark’s Braylon Morris cut the Warhawk lead back to one point with a bucket 15 seconds later. Meister, who dove on a loose ball in the left corner, found Morris at the top of the key from the ground, and the junior drove powerfully through the lane and laid the ball in the bucket.

But the Warhawks continued to prove stoic at the charity stripe. With 14.4 seconds remaining, senior Isaiah Brown hit two free throws. Meister drew a foul and made two free throws of his own with just over seven seconds remaining, but Westerville Central senior Devin Martin one-upped him with another pair of free throws at the 6.6 second mark to make the score 51-48. That score would stand as final after Meister could not convert on one last Wildcat three ball as time expired.

If Newark’s ability to put up big scoring efforts against solid defensive teams was in question after the first 29 minutes and 52 seconds of gameplay on Friday, those concerns were dispelled in the last two minutes and eight seconds of the same contest. 

After the game, Jeff Quackenbush said his team can learn lots of lessons from the Westerville Central loss. Particularly, he said, the swagger and emotion the team displayed as they nearly pulled off a miraculous comeback victory needs to be ever-present in the state tournament.

“We can’t wait ‘til we get a couple jumpers to get our energy going,” he said.

The Wildcats will have the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to play with that juice for the duration of a state tournament run as they aim to repeat as district champions.

Their first tournament game begins Tuesday, Feb. 27 at 7 p.m., when the team will face the Chillicothe Cavaliers. 

Jack Nimesheim writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donationsfrom readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.