Senior guard Shelby Olszewski played the second half of a Division I district final like it might be her last game with the Pickerington High School North girls basketball team.
Turns out it wasn't.
Keyed in part by Olszewski's all-out hustle on the perimeter, the fifth-seeded Panthers continued their season by ratcheting up their defensive intensity while defeating third-seeded Olentangy Orange 46-39 on March 5 at Olentangy Liberty.
"(Senior) Kavunaa (Edwards) came up to me with about three minutes left in the game and said, 'Let's go. We've got this one now,'" said Olszewski, who is playing with an aching knee that likely will require surgery after the season. "We had some anxious moments getting to that point, though."
The Panthers improved to 19-5 with their seventh consecutive victory, including four in the postseason. They captured their eighth district championship playing in as many finals since the school opened in 2003-04, and coach Dave Butcher earned his 23rd consecutive district title.
"Nobody wants to be the one that loses it," post player Jordan Householder said.
The Panthers advanced to play Northland in a regional semifinal March 8, with the winner playing Reynoldsburg or Liberty Township Lakota East in a regional final at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 11, at Otterbein University.
The regional champion advances to a state semifinal March 18 at Ohio State.
Reynoldsburg, which was the top seed in the district tournament, swept North during the regular season, winning 52-38 on Dec. 17 and 59-47 on Jan. 28. The Raiders defeated North 45-34 in a regional final last season.
"It never gets old and it never gets any easier," Butcher said of the district winning streak. "We've been through a lot of adversity this year. ... I've had more athletic and more talented teams, but this team has shown a ton of heart."
Orange, a third-year program, led North 29-27 after Taylor Agler made a 3-pointer from the right wing with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
But the Pioneers were held scoreless for the next 5:41 and went 8:46 without a field goal. By then, the Panthers had taken a 43-31 advantage behind a 16-2 run. The OCC-Capital Division-winning Pioneers, who have no seniors, finished a program-best 21-3.
North point guard Jaila Kee-Bryant scored 13 points to lead the Panthers, who also got 12 points from Edwards and nine from Olszewski. Kee-Bryant, a junior who had a season-high 16 points in a 63-46 win over ninth-seeded Upper Arlington in a district semifinal on March 1 at Liberty, also was instrumental in defending Agler, who scored all nine of her points on 3-pointers.
"She's a penetrator who likes to kick the ball back out," Kee-Bryant said of Agler. "So I wanted to make her take jump shots."
Defensively, North was formidable inside as well. Householder limited 6-foot-3 center Ashley Bassett-Smith to four points while Edwards, a Villanova signee who was named district Player of the Year, held 6-1 Kelsey Lewis to eight points.
"(Bassett-Smith) had height on me, so I played mostly in front of her," said Householder, a 6-0 senior. "I got help on the weak side. I think the key to the game was playing defense as a team. We were pretty good outside and inside."
• Central concluded its season with a 54-46 overtime loss to sixth-seeded Brookhaven in a district semifinal March 2 at Liberty. The Tigers, who converted only 17 of their 71 field-goal attempts (24 percent), finished 12-11 overall.
"It was one of those days where we couldn't hit anything," coach Wade Brockwell said.
Phylicia Johnson, a sophomore guard, might have staged a coming-out party of sorts in the loss, however. The Tigers trailed 42-37 late in the fourth quarter before rallying, with Johnson hitting one 3-pointer to make it 42-40 with 11.2 seconds remaining and another at the buzzer to forge a 43-all tie and send the game into overtime. Those were her only points.
"She hit two big shots," Brockwell said. "She stepped up without any hesitation."
The same can be said of much of the lineup, which grew younger during the second half of the regular season as Brockwell made several personnel changes to get more playing time for freshmen such as guard Aajay Hawkins and post player Allie Luther.
The Tigers, who went 6-8 to finish fifth in the OCC-Ohio behind champion Reynoldsburg (14-0), will lose three seniors, including third-year varsity contributors Katie Stevens and Melissa Weaver.
The list of returnees is headlined by junior post player Jasmine Henshaw, who was the team's leading scorer at 12.1 points per game, and sophomore post player Marley Hill, who averaged 9.9 points.
Henshaw made first-team all-league and third-team all-district and Stevens was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Hill made honorable mention all-district and Johnson was honorable mention all-league.
The Tigers won four of their final six games, including a 65-61 upset of fourth-seeded Watterson in a second-round tournament game Feb. 25 after defeating Walnut Ridge 78-13 in the first round Feb. 19. They went 9-5 after losing to Newark 55-38 on Jan. 3.