'I love our chances.' Taft basketball storms into state title hunt with CMAC championship
BOND HILL, Ohio – Late in the third quarter of Friday’s high-stakes Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference showdown between Taft and Woodward, Taft head coach Demarco Bradley Sr. opted for a 2-3 zone defense.
The decision was risky and was coming off the heels of a 16-7 Woodward run to begin the second half that trimmed the Senators’ lead to as little as three midway through the third quarter. Ultimately, to sustain success, a team has to win in a variety of ways.
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Taft’s zone defense limited Woodward to just 15 points over the final quarter-plus as the Senators captured the CMAC-Red division title with a 54-50 victory.
“We haven’t played zone all year and here it is in game 18,” Bradley said. “We just went into a 2-3 zone and it kind of threw them off rhythm.”
It was a night of firsts, ending with Taft’s 2-3 zone and starting with limited fans after it was decided early in the week that the crowd would be reduced "after altercations involving spectators at the previous boys basketball game between Taft and Woodward High Schools,” according to a Cincinnati Public Schools spokesperson.
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Each player and cheerleader from Woodward and Taft were granted two tickets for parents and guardians.
“I just hate that I come home and none of my people can really see it,” Bradley said. “It was neutral. There wasn’t an advantage for Woodward, there wasn’t an advantage for Taft. It just reminded me of COVID. It really shouldn’t be this way.”
Despite the sparse spectators, this was still an important game to play. Eian Elmer’s first-quarter three-pointer gave Taft a 10-8 lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the night.
In the previous matchup between these two teams in January, Taft pulled out a 90-84 double overtime thriller in downtown Cincinnati. On Friday, the Senators’ defense held Woodward, the CMAC’s highest-scoring offense, to a season-low 50 points.
“Everybody thinks we just go up and down (the court), but we’ve got Eian Elmer and Kieran Grandville Britten, they control the glass. We’re just so big,” Bradley said. “I tell my kids that we can play any style.”
So far, that’s been true for the CMAC champions. Taft (16-2) has won 10 consecutive games since losing 66-60 to Evangel Christian on Dec. 19. Many coaches yearn for their team to peak at the right time and it’s hard to argue with a double-digit game winning streak heading into the regular-season’s final week.
“Our last loss was in December, I told my guys, ‘We’re not losing. I don’t even want to talk about losing,’” Bradley said. “Woodward is tough. They’re one of the Top-10 teams in the state, they’re a good team. Me and (Woodward head coach) Jarelle (Redden), I coached him up at West High, we’re from the same neighborhood. Coming here, battling in a CMAC test, I knew it would be this type of game.”
This Taft team doesn’t mind being the hunted, either. Since starting 9-8 last season, Taft has won 26 of 28 games. This season, they’ve dawned a target on their backs with everyone wanting to take down the defending Division III state champions.
Part of Taft’s toughness is its depth. On Friday, Taft had six players score at least six points. Quanny Bostic, a junior transfer from Woodward, scored eight points off the bench, knocking down a pair from beyond the arc. Sophomore guard James Burnett had six off the bench. Taft’s two big men, Elmer and Grandville-Britten, combined for 16 while enforcing the paint on the defensive end.
Junior guard DeShaun Jackson scored in double figures for the fifth time in the last eight games and senior sharpshooter Hudson Norton had a team-high 14, connecting on four 3-pointers. His biggest triple came with 5:40 left in regulation to give Taft a 48-40 lead after Woodward had cut the lead to four or less five times in the second half.
“Hudson Norton, he is probably one of the best shooters in the state,” Bradley said.
Woodward (16-3) was led by junior Ru Mills, who tallied a game-high 17 points, including an emphatic slam dunk off an alley-oop from Kanye Moreland late in the third quarter. Trell Stevenson added 12 points off the bench.
The Bulldogs had won six straight going into Friday's game and will be one of the teams to watch come tournament time. Under Redden, the reigning CMAC-Red coach of the year, Woodward has won 83.8% of its games over the last three seasons (57-11 overall) and made the regional finals last year.
The job is far from finished for Taft, which was ranked the No. 3 team in Ohio in Division II in the latest Associated Press poll (Woodward was No. 9). Taft hosts Withrow on Tuesday and finishes the regular season in Clifton next Friday against Hughes.
“I’ve got a chance to do something I’ve never done before since I’ve been coaching, which is to go undefeated in the CMAC,” Bradley said. “We’ve got a really good chance.”
While late-March runs is nothing new for Bradley and the Senators, the competition goes up a notch from last year when Taft stormed through the Division III competition. Taft moved up to Division II this season. No Greater Cincinnati boys basketball team has won a Division II state championship since the 2002 Roger Bacon Spartans upset the LeBron James-led Fighting Irish of Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary.
Plus, the region is loaded with teams with dreams of getting to the University of Dayton.
“I know there are about six or seven teams in this region that have a really good chance from Chaminade (Julienne), Woodward, us, Wyoming, CHCA, Fenwick and Hamilton Badin. The southwest region is one of the toughest regions,” Bradley said. “I’ve said this over the years, but a man who fails to plan, plans to fail.
"I just try to prepare my guys for everything. I don't like our chances; I love our chances."
Taft 54, Woodward 50
Taft (16-2, 8-0 CMAC): Jackson 3 4 10, Bostic 3 0 8, Norton 5 0 14, Burnett 3 0 6, Elmer 3 1 8, Granville-Britten 1 6 8. Totals: 18 11 54.
Woodward (15-3, 7-2 CMAC): Stevenson 6 0 12, Ferrell 2 2 6, Mills 5 6 17, J. Hughes 2 0 4, Moreland 1 3 6, D. Hughes 2 0 5. Totals: 18 11 50.
Halftime: T 31-19. 3-pointers: T 7 (Norton 4, Bostic 2, Elmer), W 3 (Moreland, D. Hughes, Mills).
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Taft basketball wins CMAC title, sets sights on another state crown