COLUMBUS, Ohio – Jalen Rose soaked in the moment when the Deer Park crowd stood and cheered toward the end of Thursday’s state semifinal.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” said the Deer Park senior forward. “When you got that many people around you and wanting you to do good, you got to do it for them.”
Deer Park (28-0) plays Columbus Africentric Early College (21-6) in the Division III state final at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.
Deer Park, which defeated Lutheran East 66-48 Thursday night in the state semifinal, is making its first state basketball final appearance. Columbus Africentric Early College has been a state semifinalist two other times including 2012 and 2011.
A state basketball title would represent so much not only to the Deer Park program, but also to the community. Deer Park was just 1-22 two seasons ago. The fans are hungry.
Players and coaches won’t soon forget the special send-off on Wednesday afternoon before the team arrived in the Columbus area.
Fans lined up and offered thanks to the team and waved in support all along the path to Interstate 71.
“It’s just wonderful, man,” Deer Park coach Steve Gentry said. “It’s huge for the City of Deer Park.”
Hundreds of youngsters had posters with names of the basketball players.
“All the kids – we bring a smile to their face and show them they can do what I am doing some day,” Rose said. “It’s big for the community because they rallied around us. What other way to go out than a state title?”
Sophomore guard Mark Wise said the community support gave him a great deal of pride this week.
“It was so surreal to me,” Wise said. “It made me want to go my hardest and bring a state title back to Deer Park.”
Only one Deer Park team has ever won a state championship. The baseball team won the Class AA baseball title in 1977.
The Wildcats will attempt Saturday to become 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.
Gentry said his players will be ready Saturday afternoon. So will the Deer Park fans.
“You guys know the history of Deer Park,” Gentry said. “You know they have been in the cellar for a long, long time. I just believe even now whether we win the game or not, we have brought so much excitement back to the school, to the community."
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