For the first time since 2006, the McKinley Bulldogs have stamped their ticket to the Sweet 16.
After starting the season just 3-6, the Bulldogs answered with a 14-1 run the rest of the season, winning 13 in a row on their way to a district championship.
And what could be a more fitting way to win the district than by knocking off cross-town rival Timken at the Canton Civic Center? Although the Bulldogs won the game 50-40, the game was closer than the score indicates.
The hype didn’t even need to be built up—it was already there. The two teams hadn’t played each other in nine years, leaving fans to decide which of the teams—both of which have made it to regionals in that time span—is the best team in Canton.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday, the initial run of tickets for the game was sold out. At 5:30, when tickets went on sale again, there was a line forming outside of the Civic Center, growing longer by the minute. With a packed crowd of 3,584 people, tipoff had to be pushed back to accommodate the large number of fans and the increased security for the game.
Lehman principal Ed Rehfus dubbed the game “All-City Night,” a moniker used when the four Canton high schools used to play each other.
The crowd was energized, and the players came out with just as much energy. What followed was a physical, sloppy but thrilling game.
McKinley and Timken traded possessions before the game’s first point, which was a free throw by McKinley senior and District Player of the Year, Devaugntah Williams. The Bulldogs never lost the lead, but they never led comfortably either. Timken never came closer than 1 point the rest of the way.
Timken looked out of sorts in the first quarter, trailing 11-4 heading into the second. Both defenses were going for steals, and neither offense had been able to find much of a rhythm.
In the second quarter, the Trojans let the Bulldogs know they weren’t going to back down. They outscored McKinley by 5, to trail by just 2 points going into halftime.
Some of the plays looked like downright muggings, although there weren’t a ton of foul calls. But in a defensive game, the Trojans seemed to run out of steam in the second half.
The closest they got was within 1 point—a play that got a huge roar from the Timken side of the Civic Center.
The reason the Trojans never caught up is simple: turnovers. Timken turned the ball over 30 times in the game, while McKinley had 17. Both teams ran into several double-teams and even triple-teams, and inbounds passes led to turnovers several times as well.
And in a physical game, neither team made the free throws that they got count. McKinley shot 57 percent from the line, while Timken shot 46 percent.
But the real turning point in the game came in the fourth quarter. McKinley junior Mike Mills, who had left the game twice due to injuries, threw down a dunk off of a lob pass, drawing a foul along the way. As the McKinley side erupted, cheering for what seemed to be forever, he sank the following free throw to push the Bulldogs lead to six.
The Bulldogs fed off of the energy, scoring on two more possessions to push it to a 9-point lead. The rest was just formalities, as Timken eased off on defense over the last minute and a half, and McKinley passed the ball around to run the clock.
The two teams final statlines for the game weren’t pretty. McKinley shot 33 percent for the game, and Timken hit 32 percent. The two combined to go 0-18 from 3-point range and 47 turnovers.
But as ugly as it was, McKinley won the right to the distinction as best team in Canton with its 23rd win in a row over Timken.
With the win, McKinley advances to the Regional Semifinal on Wednesday, taking on Reynoldsburg in Columbus. Reynoldsburg beat on Saturday No. 1 ranked Columbus Northland 53-51.