ANNA — The iconic St. John Arena has seen its share of basketball history since opening in 1956. The Anna Rockets look to add to the legacy this weekend.
Standing in the way? Just the two-time defending state champions from Columbus Africentric Early College, a program that boasts four Division I college prospects and six state titles since 2012.
Anna (22-6) takes on Africentric (21-4) in a Division III girls basketball state semifinal at 3 p.m. on Friday. The Rockets make their sixth trip to the state semis and their first since 2013, when they won the title. The Nubians have reached the semis for the fifth straight season and 11th overall.
This won’t be Anna coach Jeff Maurer’s first trip to St. John Arena, the home of Ohio State basketball before moving to the Schottenstein Center in 1998. Maurer, then an elementary school student, also made the trip in 1994.
“I remember going there as a kid and watching the Botkins boys team play in the state semifinals,” Maurer said. “Some of the people from our community have a lot of memories of St. John Arena. I think everybody is excited about the idea of playing in there. It’s definitely going to be a more intimate setting. I think for high school sports it’s going to provide a cool atmosphere for the kids.”
A smaller crowd will be in attendance Friday as the OHSAA, under Gov. Mike DeWine’s recommendation, will limit ticket sales. Players on state qualifying teams can designate four family members to purchase one ticket each. Coaches and administrators from state participants can designate two family members to purchase tickets. St. John Arena seats 13,276 spectators.
The tournament will most definitely have a different feel. But the goal remains the same. Anna goes for its fourth state title after cutting down the nets in 2013, 2011 and 1981. The Rockets placed second in 2012. Anna played Africentric in both 2013 and 2012.
“We’re just really excited to be where we’re at,” Maurer said.
“We know what we’re up against with them having four Division I prospects. They’re athletic. They’re going to be similar in style to what we saw in (the 40-39 regional final win against) Purcell Marian in that they’re going to want to pressure us full court. Their length is definitely a concern for us. Our girls are gritty and I’m confident they’re going to come and put up a fight.”
Anna returned five of its top six players from last season, including seniors Michaela Ambos, Lauren Barhorst and Kiplyn Rowland who have started every game the past two seasons. Barhorst leads the Rockets with 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. Rowland averages 7.0 points, 3.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists and Ambos 4.1 points and 2.5 rebounds.
“Their leadership has been a big part of what’s made us successful this year,” Maurer said. “Our team is made up of a lot of hard working girls with a lot of grit, desire and determination.”
Junior Ella Doseck, who hit a pair of free throws with 1.4 seconds left in the win over Purcell Marian, averages 11.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
The Rockets average 44.7 points and allow 31.7. The Nubians, who have scored more than 100 points three times, average 79 and allow 29.
Africentric, which played its first varsity season in 2003-04, is led by Rutgers recruit and senior Sakima Walker, a 6-foot-5 post player and the daughter of NBA veteran Samaki Walker. She averages 14 points. Senior Alexia Smith (University of Minnesota) averages 13 points, juniors Maliyah Johnson (Pittsburgh) and Arianna Smith both add 10 and senior Nyam Thornton (Texas Tech) runs the offense.
Anna can expect another dose of full-court pressure from the Nubians, just like Purcell Marian did.
“We need to do a better job of attacking that pressure. I think the girls were a little bit nervous in that last game,” Maurer said. “They sat back and thought we need to be patient to get through it. I think we need to play with a little more confidence at the guard position and be a little more assertive to break the pressure and get into that offense at the other end of the floor. Lauren Barhorst is a big part of what we do. We definitely need to do our best to get her post touches.”
No. 4 Elyria Catholic (26-1) plays No. 1 Berlin Hiland (27-1) at 1 p.m. Friday in the other D-III state semifinal. The winners return for the state title game at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday at St. John Arena.