According to Pickerington High School North boys basketball coach Pete Liptrap, his team's frenetic 46-44 win over Gahanna on Jan. 8 -- in which the Panthers scored four points in the final 11 seconds -- wasn't necessarily indicative of its play this season.
Neither was a 45-21 loss to Grove City on Jan. 11, when North was outscored 14-0 in the fourth quarter.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle for the Panthers, who entered the week 6-7 overall and 2-6 in the OCC-Ohio Division.
"We're not a bad team, but we just struggle scoring the ball," Liptrap said. "We don't shoot particularly well from the foul line (85-for-148, or 57.4 percent, through 12 games). In the fourth quarters, it really exposes itself because teams get after you on the defensive end late and we just have had a hard time scoring in the fourth quarter. We have to find a way to fight through that. And that's compounded by the fact that we have to rely on our defense because we're not scoring, and in the fourth quarter that just wears on you."
Through 13 games, North was averaging 43.9 points per game and allowing an average of 44.8.
"Sometimes we'll be there for the first three quarters, then we'll just die off and it's one guy by himself," 6-foot-2 senior post player Khalen Watson said. "We just have to work on staying strong, not getting out of our system and playing well for four quarters. In our league, we play a lot of teams that drive, so we have to take a lot of charges."
Senior forward Jake Butt averaged 13.3 points in four games before graduating early and enrolling at the University of Michigan, where he will play football. That slack has been taken up by senior guard DeVon Price, who was averaging 13.2 points through 13 games.
The Panthers also should have Mason Olszewski for the remainder of the season, The senior guard recently was medically cleared to play basketball after sustaining stress fractures in his back during football season.
Butt's departure allowed Watson to slide into the starting lineup with 6-5 senior post player Desmond Palmer. Watson's statistics aren't huge -- he was averaging 1.9 points and 2.2 rebounds through 12 games -- but of his 26 rebounds during that time, 16 were offensive.
Palmer was averaging eight points and 9.5 rebounds through 12 games.
"I'm undersized height-wise, so I just have to be quicker than most of the guys I face," Watson said. "I used to be a guard when I was younger, so I have to use that instinct in the post."
Sophomore point guard Dajon Moore faces a similar battle in his first year on varsity, saying he needs to improve his ball-handling and help the offense get better looks.
"I think I'm doing better stepping up in bigger games and being more dependable," Moore said. "I went from playing freshman ball to starting varsity. Honestly, I didn't think I'd be doing it because a lot of people doubted me, but I just used that as motivation to try my hardest."
Panthers, Tigers get set for OCC rematch
The second meeting of the season between North and Central is Tuesday, Jan. 29, at North.
The Tigers won the first game 58-40 on Dec. 18 after trailing 19-9 early in the second quarter. The comeback was highlighted by a successful half-court heave by former Central post player Taco Charlton as the first half expired. The 3-pointer gave the Tigers a 24-23 lead at halftime, and they would not trail in the second half.
Charlton, who, like Butt, graduated in December in order to enroll early at Michigan for football, had a game-high 18 points. Junior forward Jae'Sean Tate and junior guard Connor Kern added 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Price led North with 12 points and Butt scored 11.
"In this league, the second round gets tougher," Liptrap said. "The teams are well-coached and have video on you. You have to keep improving. It's easy for kids to keep improving when they're getting rewards with victories. When you struggle like we have in our league, it's harder for kids to buy in and see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Central coach Jerry Francis isn't sure what kind of team the Tigers have become since their first matchup with North.
"Still trying to figure that out myself," he said. "So (often), it's been two games on and one game off, three practices off and one on. We still haven't found an identity yet."