For a look at how much the players have learned from last year's late-January and early-February struggles, the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team took a tougher journey to the same road.
On Jan. 29, 2012, the Tigers took a 120-mile bus ride home from the Dunk 4 Diabetes Shootout at Walsh University in North Canton after their 14-0 start was dashed in a 66-65 overtime loss to Cleveland St. Ignatius. Central sustained its second loss nine days later, falling behind early in a 51-35 setback at Newark.
On Jan. 27, the Tigers made the same ride home from Walsh after a 60-55 loss to Shaker Heights in this year's Dunk 4 Diabetes Shootout. The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak and was just Central's second loss since Dec. 14.
Those midseason struggles a year ago didn't derail Central's run to its first Division I state championship, but the Tigers still think they're in a better place this time around.
"It was good early in the season to get those losses out of the way so we can know we're not that good," senior forward Darryl LeVert said. "We haven't arrived yet. We need to always get better. The losses to Northland (58-42 on Dec. 8) and in West Virginia (60-48 to Richmond, Ky., Madison Central on Dec. 28) really helped us. We have tough games coming, but we're working every day to get better."
Central entered a Jan. 29 game at Pickerington North with records of 11-4 overall and 8-1 in the OCC-Ohio Division, a game ahead of second-place Reynoldsburg.
"Before this, you sometimes get the guys having jitters and they're just not good enough at times," coach Jerry Francis said. "Getting into February, we have to be on all cylinders and get that rotation going as far as knowing who our sixth, seventh and eighth guys are and just continue to compete. No hidden agendas. Just get better."
Central avenged its other loss, 52-51 to Reynoldsburg on Dec. 14, with a 60-59 overtime road win Jan. 25. The Tigers trailed 12-0 within the first 3 minutes, 36 seconds, but battled back for a 22-all halftime tie before a second half and overtime that featured a few improbable but crucial moments.
With 9.8 seconds to play in overtime and Central leading 58-57, junior forward Jae'Sean Tate and his younger brother, freshman forward Jalen, got tangled up with Reynoldsburg's Mykel Traylor-Bennett under the Raiders' basket. A foul originally was called on Jae'Sean Tate, which would have been his fifth. He already was standing in front of the Central bench, hands on his head in frustration about seemingly fouling out, when the call was changed to a foul on Jalen Tate.
Traylor-Bennett made both of his free throws to give the Raiders a 59-58 lead. Tigers junior guard Connor Kern tried a would-be winning 3-pointer, but the ball stuck next to the basket, creating a jump ball situation. Possession went to Central, and the plan off Jalen Tate's inbounds pass went to perfection.
Double-teamed, the 6-foot-5 Jae'Sean Tate -- who bulked up to 210 pounds in the offseason -- used his increased strength to muscle up the winning shot.
"I knew coming out this year, it was going to be a physical season," he said. "(Francis) told me beforehand that other teams would throw a lot of traps (and) a lot of box-and-ones at me."
Jae'Sean Tate had 21 points and Kern added 17 against Shaker Heights, which outscored Central 36-25 in the second half.
"We just keep at it every day," Kern said. "If it's working, it's working. We have some tough losses out of the way and we plan on making another nice run in the postseason. (Francis) takes it one game at a time. He always has, and so do we."
North trying to start another streak
Senior guard Devon Price's career-high 26 points, 10 of which came in the fourth quarter, powered North to a 53-42 non-league win at Eastmoor Academy on Jan. 26. The victory pulled the Panthers to 8-8 overall and made them 5-2 in non-league games.
It also was the third time North has won two consecutive games this year.
On Jan. 25, the Panthers improved to 3-6 in the OCC-Ohio with a 36-32 home win over Lancaster.
Junior guard Jordan Chambers scored 11 points and sophomore guard Dajon Moore added 10, including a 3-pointer with about a minute left to give North the lead for good.
"We've had trouble scoring in the fourth quarter, but there's no magic trick," coach Pete Liptrap said. "You just practice harder, play harder and try to get better."