Six weeks into this season, Pickerington High School Central girls basketball coach James Stutzman still isn't sure what team he'll see from one game to the next.
What he does know is that the Tigers' chances of winning increase considerably when forward Allie Luther is one of the focal points offensively and defensively. The junior was second on the team in scoring through 12 games, averaging 9.0 points, and is considered the Tigers' most consistent player by her first-year coach.
"I really think she's done a nice job for us in the paint, rebounding and finishing (chances)," Stutzman said. "She also, just basketball IQ-wise, does some very nice things for us and knows what's going on and what we need. We're really pleased with that."
The Tigers are 5-1 when Luther scores in double figures and 3-0 when both Luther and senior guard Phylicia Johnson score 10 or more points. That reliability is a big reason why Central, which entered the week 8-4 overall and 3-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division, already has surpassed its win total from last season, when it finished 7-14.
Johnson was averaging a team-best 9.9 points through 12 games.
Luther saw time at center behind Jasmine Henshaw and Marley Hill as a freshman and did not score in double figures in any games last season as a starter. She minimized her scoring contributions this season after a recent practice, emphasizing her enjoyment of being a team leader.
"It might be the way things have developed," Luther said. "Everybody puts in an equal amount of work and effort to get better. It's a team effort, not just a few players.
"I lead and help with a positive attitude. That helps bring everybody together. I pick them up on the floor and I'm there to help. I like it. I like to lead and help people out and know I'm there for them."
Stutzman lauded the defensive skills of Luther and her teammates, saying the Tigers' best games have coincided with their best defensive efforts.
"The individual defensive skills we inherited were pretty good, but with so many things I like to do with the program, it's a little more than just one-on-one defense," he said. "It really becomes effective and starts to show how good we can be when all five start to work together. That, again, is a process. It's one of those things where depending on what type of offensive team we come across, sometimes it looks like we've made advancements. With a couple other teams, we're not where we should be."
Luther said the Tigers are brimming with confidence as they enter the second half of the season. Their next three games are at home, starting Friday, Jan. 11, against Gahanna, which has four Division I college signees in Zenobia Bess (Illinois State), Maddison Blackwell (Xavier), Chrishna Butler (Cleveland State) and Quiera Lampkins (Ohio University) and defeated Central 48-39 on Nov. 30. Bess is the sister of former Central boys basketball player Javon Bess, who now is at Gahanna.
"We've definitely taken a huge step up," said Luther, who scored 11 points in the first matchup against Gahanna. "It helps us to finally see and get some respect to see what we can be and what we should be."
Return of Thomas helping Panthers
North sophomore Emily Thomas returned to the lineup in mid-December after being sidelined by a broken ankle, and her contributions were felt almost immediately.
Thomas scored 13 points in her return Dec. 14, a 54-22 win over Lancaster.
She was named to the all-tournament team in the Lady Panther Holiday Classic that concluded Dec. 29, scoring 17 points in a 58-27 win over Toledo Start on Dec. 27 and scoring 11 in a 45-39 win over Philadelphia Archbishop Ryan on Dec. 28.
For now, Thomas is splitting time at point guard with classmate Aubrey Lukascko as she works on improving her stamina.
"She's one of the better sophomore guards in the state," coach Dave Butcher said of Thomas.