COLUMBUS -- What you're about to read might seem crazy, especially if you were at Value City Arena on Friday night and watched Columbus Northland punish Warren G. Harding like no other opponent punished the Raiders this season.
The Raiders lost and their season ended in the wake of a dominating performance by Vikings big men J.D. Weatherspoon (6-foot-6) and Jared Sullinger (6-foot-9). That isn't up for debate. Harding had no answer for Northland's twin towers in the paint.
Weatherspoon and Sullinger combined to shoot 20-of-24 from the floor and score 47 points in the Vikings' 73-59 victory. Don't be too awed by the duo's 83-percent shooting. The shots get easier the closer you get to the basket, and the more wide open you are. And make no mistake, Weatherspoon and Sullinger were as consistently and blatantly open as they wanted to be.
But - and here is where I'm asking you to suspend disbelief for a moment - Harding had the best player on the floor Friday night at Value City Arena. The statement is not all that difficult to buy into when you look at the numbers and consider the situation.
Desmar Jackson singlehandedly kept the Raiders (23-3) in the game with 29 points, five steals and four blocked shots. Neither Northland star matched Jackson in any of those categories. The Harding senior shot 13-of-22 from the floor and led his team with five of its 18 rebounds.
Jackson did all this despite being the Raiders' only option on offense most of the game. He did all this with Northland knowing full well he was the only player the Vikings really had to worry about, a fact that became increasingly clear as the game progressed.
Harding clearly had no answer for Weatherspoon, who finished with 25 points and eight rebounds, or Sullinger, Ohio's Mr. Basketball, whose latest double-double included 22 points and 14 rebounds. Weatherspoon had four thunderous dunks and Sullinger had another, as well as an assortment of layups.
As someone noted after the game, if Northland's big men get the ball inside 10 feet, the two points are as good as in the scorebook.
But Jackson, as he did when Harding needed a momentum changer in a regional semifinal against Lakewood St. Edward, sparked several mini-runs. Three times, he helped the Raiders cut a substantial deficit to eight points. Once, Harding trailed by eight and had the ball after its trapping defense forced a series of turnovers. But the Raiders couldn't stop the Vikings consistently enough to really make a game of it.
Don't blame Jackson for that. The University of Wyoming-bound guard couldn't have done much more to carry Harding to the brink of a comeback for the ages. At one point, Jackson leaped in the paint and blocked one of Sullinger's shots at the apex of his jump.
It didn't make much of a difference in the game, but clearly, Sullinger doesn't often get his shot blocked by a guard.
"Des is primetime," Harding coach Steve Arnold said. "He showed that tonight. He kept us in it as best he could."
Jackson was perhaps the only player the Raiders had who played bigger than his 6-5 listed height Friday night. Some of his teammates had their shots altered by the Vikings' big men, but Jackson went inside and finished strong all night. But it didn't come easy.
"It was the hardest game all year," Jackson said. "They were bigger and stronger than we thought, but we weren't scared of them. We just didn't get it done on the defensive glass."
Harding doesn't have the imposing post players it did a year ago, when Damien Eargle and Chris Henderson owned the paint and often could make up for a defensive mistake in the backcourt by blocking a shot or getting a defensive rebound. Northland more than doubled Harding in rebounding, 37-18. After Jackson's five rebounds, no other Raider managed more than three.
Aside from growing six inches and putting on 100 pounds of muscle overnight, there wasn't much more Jackson could have done.
"Desmar is Desmar, when he wants to be," Arnold said. "We've talked about Desmar's work ethic, and over the two years he has been at Harding, I've seen him grow as a young man and as a player. About a month ago, we were going to school one day and we were talking about Magic Johnson and how he would take what the defense was giving him. There were nights when Magic scored, there were times he was an assist guy and (other times) he rebounded.
"You can see Desmar can do that when he wants to. I think the sky is the limit for this young man."
Northland coach Satch Sullinger's two powerful forwards wound up overmatching Harding, even with Jackson's performance, but even he was impressed by the Raiders' guard.
"He's a great ballplayer," Sullinger said. "He's first-team all-state, and there is a reason why. He's good."
If postgame whispers are to be believed, others appear to have noticed.
Jackson has given a verbal commitment to Wyoming, but recruiting is a cut-throat business in big-time college basketball, and there are plenty of major programs between Warren and Laramie that might now be thinking it would be foolish to let a player like Jackson slip away and play 1,500 miles from home.
One of those college basketball programs might just be based in Columbus.
Sullinger, a junior, has committed to Ohio State. Wouldn't it be ironic if Jackson and Ohio's newest Mr. Basketball end up being teammates some day?