Centerville senior Mo Njie is built for carrying things. He walked out of the locker room Friday night lugging the large speaker that provided the booming post-game locker room music. It was also his job, as the only returning varsity player, to carry the team at the beginning of the season.
Big Mo — he’s 6-foot-9 — will keep carrying the speaker, but his teammates are now helping with the rest of the heavy lifting. When Njie missed six games after spraining an ankle at Flyin’ To The Hoop, his teammates had to accelerate their growth. On Friday, they had to figure out how to beat Wayne in a Division I district semifinal at Trotwood-Madison, and lots of the Elks needed to play important roles.
The Warriors beat the Elks 52-50 on Dec. 7 and 35-30 on Feb. 7 when Njie was injured. To say the Elks figured it out would be an understatement. The Elks dominated the first half 35-7 with hot shooting and a stingy zone defense and cruised in the second half to a 74-42 victory.
“They knocked down shots early and I think it gave them tons of confidence and tons of momentum, and you could see them feeling good about themselves,” Wayne coach Nathan Martindale said.
Centerville coach Brook Cupps didn’t expect a 28-point halftime lead. But he’s had a growing suspicion the past couple weeks that his young team was about to play like a mature one.
“We figured out who we really were, and guys really bought into roles over the last two weeks,” Cupps said. “We’re just different. It’s hard to explain.”
The top-seeded Elks (14-11) will play for a second straight district title at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 8, at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati against upstart Lakota West (15-11), a No. 14 seed who beat No. 6 Cincinnati Princeton 81-71.
“Most of those guys don’t have any idea what districts are,” Cupps said. “Some of that youth is a good thing. They don’t know any better, so just go play.”
Njie said the team has the lofty goal of winning the state title, but early on he wasn’t sure how this season would unfold.
“At first I thought it was going to be a struggle,” he said. “But as the season went on and watching them practice and how much work they wanted to put in and invest into the team, they definitely showed me that they wanted to be here.”
Wayne (13-12) lost in the sectional final for the second straight year. This loss will hurt for a while, but Martindale isn’t down on his young team.
“It’s a 32-minute game, and I don’t think that defines who you are,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s going to define us moving forward, but we’ve got to get back to work. We’re not going to quit. We’re going to continue to fight.”
The Elks have grown up around Njie with freshman guard Gabe Cupps running the offense and teammates like Rich Rolf, Tom House, Jayson Hayes, Drew Thompson, Kebba Njie and others learning their roles. On Friday, Cupps scored 20 points, Rolf scored 13, Mo Njie scored 11, blocked and altered shots and dominated the boards, and Hayes scored nine.
“All of them love to play with each other,” Mo Njie said. “At no time did we go our separate ways. They do everything together.”
Njie has even seen House, a sophomore, join him as a leader.
“Tom is always getting us in huddles and keeping us together because one of our core values is unified,” Njie said. “So being tough and together is the main thing.”
The Elks entered the game averaging 52.1 points a game. But in their past four games they are averaging 73.7.
“I knew we weren’t going to be like this at the beginning of the year,” Coach Cupps said. “I was hoping we would be like this by the end.”
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