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Deer Park Wildcats rally to cap undefeated season with state championship

Posted at 3:48 PM, Mar 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-25 01:45:53-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Deer Park senior forward Jalen Rose said he isn’t going to be able to sleep Saturday night.

The same could be said for the entire City of Deer Park.

The undefeated Wildcats (29-0) are Division III state boys’ basketball champions. There is plenty to savor:

It is the school’s first state basketball title and its first state championship since the baseball team won the Class AA crown in 1977.

Deer Park is the only team to finish undefeated among 799 boys’ basketball teams in the Ohio High School Athletic Association this winter.

“It’s still unbelievable to me,” sophomore point guard Steven Gentry Jr. said. “I still can’t believe we did this.”

Trailing by nine at halftime Saturday, the Wildcats didn’t fold. It’s not in their DNA to back down. They rallied before and were determined to do it again.

“This team is the most relentless team I’ve ever coached in my life,” Deer Park coach Steve Gentry said. “They never say die.”

Instead, they rallied together – as a team.

“To bring this home is special,” said sophomore guard Mark Wise, who had seven points and eight assists. “Our community – they have always been behind us.

The Wildcats defeated Columbus Africentric Early College 67-57 in front of 8,705 at the Schottenstein Center Saturday afternoon. Just like all season, Deer Park had multiple players step up in crucial moments.

Senior guard Damani McEntire had 14 points, eight rebounds and six steals. McEntire’s four free throws during back-to-back opportunities pushed the Wildcats’ lead to nine with under three minutes left.

His defensive intensity was apparent with the steals. He simply made plays at the right time.

“Damani woke up,” Coach Gentry said. “That’s the Damani of old. I told him today, ‘We are going to need you in order to win this game.’ He stepped and got some big-time steals, rebounds and he knocked his free throws down.”

Then there was Gentry Jr., a calming force for the team all season. He had 14 points including 4 of 6 from the free-throw line.

Rose had 13 points including a 3-pointer in the right corner to give Deer Park its biggest lead halfway thorugh the fourth quarter.

“I know we were going to win once he hit that shot,” McEntire said.

Junior center Joseph Hocker continued a memorable state tournament as he had 10 points and 10 rebounds. His 18 rebounds Thursday afternoon in the semifinal helped propel Deer Park to the championship game.

It was Hocker who brought his team together in the tunnel during halftime Saturday when Africentric outrebounded the Wildcats and had the momentum going into the intermission.  

Hocker told them they didn’t make the trip to Columbus to lose any games. He urged them to remain confident despite a deficit.

“We had one thing all year – that was to win a state championship,” Hocker said.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 2 in the season’s final Associated Press Division III state poll, became the first undefeated area boys’ basketball team to win a state title since Georgetown (28-0) won in Division IV in 2007.

No area boys’ basketball team from Hamilton County has won a state title while going undefeated, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association records.

The most recent Cincinnati Hills League team to win a state title in basketball was Reading in 2003 in Division III, according to the conference website.

Coach Gentry admitted the season was stressful at times, keeping the focus on basketball while he fielded negative questions about his players' eligibility. Gentry said all of his players passed. No violations were found.

“It means the world to me,” Gentry said. “It’s been a long journey.”

Gentry lauded the Deer Park fans, saying the crowd was a sixth man all season. That energy helped the team.

“It’s been a lot of love for us, but there has been a lot of hate,” Wise said. “We’re trying to take the love and go with it. We haven’t been really listening to the hate. Now, we can throw this in their face, baby. We’re getting a ring.” 

SEE box score.

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