The VASJ boys basketball team made HISTORY on March 25 at Value City Arena in Columbus.
However, Vikings coach Babe Kwasniak was only concerned with the STORY of the 2016-2017 state champion team he guided to a 54-52 win over Roger Bacon in the Division III state finals.
With the appearance in the game, VASJ became the only team to play in five straight state championship games. More importantly, with the hard-fought victory over the Spartans, the Vikings claimed their seventh state championship to tie Middletown and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary for the most ever in OHSAA boys basketball history.
“I told the guys the history we made is great and we certainly appreciate that and respect it, but tonight wasn’t about a seventh title, it was about OUR first state championship,” Kwasniak said. “These guys haven’t done this together as a team before and I can’t say enough about their heart and their toughness and I think it is a reflection of the school. I am so happy for these guys – they really deserve it.”
All-Ohio point guard Jerry Higgins battled foul trouble but led VASJ (23-6) with 16 points. Sophomore Alonzo Gaffney had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and guard Will Butler came off the bench and scored 10 key points.
However, it was the play of two seniors in the fourth quarter that swung the tide of a close game toward the Vikings.
Danny McGarry (8 points, 3 steals) took a charge down the stretch in the fourth quarter and threw a perfect full-court inbounds pass to Higgins for a layup to create huge momentum for VASJ late in a close game. Early in the fourth quarter – which the Vikings led by two to start the frame – Noah Newlon knocked down a pair of critical 3-pointers to spark a run.
“The 3s Noah hit were like touchdowns not just 3 points, especially in a game like this where offense was tough to come by,” Kwasniak said. “And Danny came up huge which he always does. These kids fight, they are just tough. They never back down, they aren’t afraid of any team or any situation and I think that showed tonight in a great high school basketball game.”
This is the third state championship for VASJ since 2013. The seniors have been runner-up twice (2014, 2016) and state winners two times (2015, 2017).
The Vikings defeated two other state champions this winter – Division II winner Akron SVSM and Division IV Lutheran East.
“This means the world because some people don’t even realize I was on the team that won the state title in 2015,” McGarry said. “Now I can say I have my own and we have our own.”
Higgins capped an incredible junior season with another stellar game despite battling foul trouble. His layup off the long pass from McGarry sparked a late run that gave the Vikings separation.
“Last time I was a part of it, but this one feels like mine, like ours,” Higgins said. “This goes back to the preseason, the summer when we are playing in 90 degree weather just to get better and it paid off in this win.”