Aajah and Amari Hawkins of the Pickerington High School Central girls basketball team believe their best on-court attribute always has been their defense.
After the Tigers defeated Ironton 38-25 on Jan. 19, the 5-foot-8 junior guards and identical twins quickly emphasized how much Central has thrived on team defense to win 11 games entering the week, four more than all of last year.
"That's what I take pride in," Aajah said. "When I guard someone, I put all my heart into it. I make sure I help my team out. I've always been better at defense, and I feel like I'm better now than I used to be."
Amari said the team's goal is simple.
"We just keep the point guard under control, then we emphasize help on defense so everybody works together better," she said. "We've played more together as a team this year. Each of us has developed a lot more, and because of that the team got better."
The Tigers, who were 11-5 overall entering a Jan. 22 game at Logan Elm and are 5-4 in the OCC-Ohio Division, were allowing an average of 37.9 points through 16 games. The only game in which Central had allowed more than 49 points was a 72-34 loss to OCC-Ohio rival and Division I state semifinalist Reynoldsburg on Dec. 14.
"The key to us is when all five are playing well so we can pressure with one or two and the other three or four can either rotate and do some of those things," coach James Stutzman said. "When we start playing together like that, it's real evident."
Stutzman said the Hawkins sisters' defensive skills, as well as those of senior guard Phylicia Johnson, have rubbed off on their teammates.
"I think the twins have always been exceptional defenders," he said. "Phylicia is also one of those who's been able to play defense one-on-one, but now we're able to utilize some of our other ballplayers to work with what they can do one-on-one as a team.
"The last two nights (against Ironton and in a 42-34 win over Lancaster on Jan. 18), it was evident that the Hawkins twins really did some nice things defensively and caused some problems. Phy was in some foul trouble (against Ironton) and Katrina (Williams, a sophomore guard) came in. I really liked some of the things Katrina did defensively. She was pretty much like the two Hawkins twins in terms of putting pressure on and denying and causing problems for their guards."
Largely the same team went 7-14 overall and 6-8 in the OCC-Ohio last year, when Central lost to Central Crossing 30-25 in a first-round Division I district tournament game. That team had no seniors. This year, the Tigers have loftier goals.
"We're happy for the most part, but we still have a long ways to go," Stutzman said. "We're improving and we've made big strides from the beginning of the year, but we still have a lot of room to make up and catch up."
Tigers, Panthers prepare for rematch
Central and Pickerington North reprise their rivalry Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Central, a rematch of a Dec. 18 game the Tigers led most of the way until the Panthers used a 17-9 fourth-quarter advantage to win 43-37.
Junior forward Brittany Johnson had a game-high 18 points and senior guard Christy Macioce added 13 for North, which was 11-for-14 at the free-throw line in the second half.
Amari Hawkins scored 10 points to lead Central, which trails the all-time series 8-3.
The Panthers are 10-6 overall and 6-3 in the OCC-Ohio, third behind Reynoldsburg (9-0) and Gahanna (8-1) and a game ahead of the Tigers. North plays host to Reynoldsburg on Feb. 1.
"We're hopeful to get some of these teams the second half of the season. But we know they're high-caliber teams," coach Dave Butcher said. "It's a long season and you have a lot of ups and downs, not only as teams but as players. We're going in the right direction."
The Panthers lost to Solon 49-48 on Jan. 21 in the Classic in the Country at Berlin Hiland.
North tied it at 48 with 8.2 seconds to go when sophomore guard Emily Thomas hit a 3-pointer.
On the ensuing possession, Macioce was called for an off-the-ball foul on a screen with 3.4 seconds left. Solon's Alexis Gray hit the first free throw for the game's final point.
Thomas led North with 16 points.
"We're 10-6, but we've lost to Hathaway Brown, Gahanna, Centerville and Solon," Butcher said. "Emily Thomas is such a tremendous athlete and has great instincts. She's only been back for three weeks and this is the most she's played all year long."