The Pickerington High School North girls basketball team could have used an inside presence such as Morgan Bassett-Smith last season.
The 6-foot-2 junior center has emerged as one of the Panthers' most dependable players this season. Having started each game, she has brought stability to the post position even though she is averaging only 3.6 points.
"We don't need her to be a prolific scorer, but we need her to finish some things," coach Dave Butcher said. "She's done a great job defensively. She's been solid on the boards. She gives us the game inside where (opponents) have to guard her. Last year when we saw a big kid, we had a hard time with them. That's not been our problem this year."
Morgan and older sister Ashley, now a freshman at the University of Tennessee at Martin, were ruled ineligible to play last season after transferring from Olentangy Orange. A Franklin County court in January 2012 upheld the Ohio High School Athletic Association's initial ruling from the previous month that the move was made for athletic reasons, which in OHSAA bylaws means the athletes in question must sit out one year of competition.
"It was tough this summer because I was just starting to get my groove back, but we started the season pretty rough and we were all starting to figure each other out," Morgan said. "(Butcher) wants me to be the main defensive player, and every offensive play I make when I get the ball, he wants it in the basket. I'm pretty much the only height we have, but I was led on more by defense because that's what I bring, then I've just built on my offense since then."
With Bassett-Smith patrolling the middle, forward Jordan Toohey has seen more opportunities to score. The 5-9 junior had a career-high 17 points in an 84-25 win over Groveport on Jan. 4 and increasingly has held her own against taller players, Butcher said.
"The last two weeks, (Toohey) has played as good a basketball as I've seen her play," he said. "She's improved defensively. She's going to the glass and battling when she has to. She's undersized. The past few games, she's been our most consistent perimeter shooter. That's something we like, and she runs the floor well. We don't expect her to carry the load that way, but 10 or 12 points a game from her (and) she's doing her job."
North, which is 9-5 overall and 5-3 in the OCC-Ohio Division, started the second half of its league schedule with a 92-56 win over Grove City on Jan. 11. The Panthers play host to Newark on Thursday, Jan. 17, in a rematch of the Wildcats' 52-50, double-overtime win on Dec. 7.
North's other league losses have come against Reynoldsburg (50-32 on Dec. 21) and Gahanna (50-42 on Jan. 8).
The Panthers will take a road trip Monday, Jan. 21, to play Solon in Berlin Hiland's Classic in the Country. Solon, which lost to two-time defending Division I state champion Twinsburg 54-37 in a regional final last year, is led by 5-9 senior and Xavier-commit Martha Thompson and 5-9 junior guard Kristen Confroy. Thompson, a guard, averaged 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists and 3.8 steals last season.
"There's never really a breather (in our schedule)," Butcher said.
Tigers' lineup still evolving
Central coach James Stutzman has been creative with his lineup this season, partly because several players are comfortable at multiple positions but also for matchup reasons.
Senior Phylicia Johnson and sophomore Taylor Johnson both have spent considerable time at point guard but have moved to other guard positions on occasion in favor of Sky Mullins and Katrina Williams. Stutzman also hoped to get junior forward/center Allie Luther more time on the perimeter once forward Kiana Thomas recovers enough from a shoulder injury to play regularly. Thomas has played intermittently this season.
"That's something I've been fortunate to have with my programs, (having) interchangeable players," said Stutzman, who guided Washington Court House Miami Trace to four district championships and a Division I state semifinal berth in nine seasons.
"We're able to move girls around to the wing or up to the point and it's not that big of a surprise or a shock. It may have hurt us a little at the beginning of the year and still a little bit now just because they don't have just one position to learn, but they have to know maybe two or even three positions so they can be that interchangeable. But it's a process, and the more we're out here practicing, the easier it'll start to come."
Shootout event not being held
The All-Ohio Girls Prep Shootout, which has been held at Central the third weekend of January each year since 1998, fell through this season, mostly because of schedule conflicts.
Stutzman said he hopes to resume the event next year. The Tigers are playing host to Ironton, which they were supposed to face in the Shootout, on Saturday, Jan. 19.