Junior guard Connor Kern of the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team described the first half of the Tigers' Division I district tournament first-round game Feb. 23 as quiet.
The second half was a different story.
Kern scored 16 of his 19 points in the final two periods and Central, fueled by junior forward Jae'Sean Tate's game-high 32 points, defeated Delaware 66-53.
The 10th-seeded Tigers led by two points at halftime, but used a pair of 9-0 runs in the third quarter to separate themselves from the 14th-seeded Pacers. The Tigers improved to 16-7 entering a second-round game Feb. 27 at fifth-seeded Dublin Scioto, while Delaware finished 16-7.
"We were more emotional in the second half. We were all yelling and clapping our hands," said Kern, who has committed to Wheeling Jesuit. "When we start rolling, start scoring and clapping and yelling, that is when we start playing well.
"I was just having more fun in the second half and we were definitely louder as a team."
The win by the defending state champions, who entered the postseason having lost three of their final four OCC-Ohio Division games, sent a message to the rest of the tournament field, according to Central's star player.
"A lot of teams around the district think we're out of it, like Delaware Hayes chose (to play) us," said the 6-foot-5 Tate, who has verbally committed to Ohio State. "Now that it is tournament time, I think we came out here and proved that you can't rest on us.
"We're still here. It's our title until somebody else takes it."
In a 73-70 win over Delaware last season, Tate was hampered by early foul trouble. On Feb. 23, he scored the Tigers' first nine points and 11 of their 14 opening-quarter points en route to matching his career high. He also had eight rebounds, four steals, three assists and three blocks.
Central led 14-8 after eight minutes of play. With 2:43 left in the second period, Delaware junior guard Tyler Treese made a 3-pointer from the right corner, capping a 12-4 run as the Pacers led 22-20. Tate answered with a pair of baskets as Central led 24-22 at halftime.
Tate then drained a pull-up 3-pointer from the left wing and added a floater from the baseline to key the Tigers' 9-0 run to open the third quarter. After a Delaware timeout, the Pacers answered with five consecutive points, only to see the Tigers respond with another 9-0 spurt. The 6-3 Kern had seven points in the run, which was capped by his 3-pointer from the top of the key as Central led 42-27 at the 1:32 mark.
Tate ignited the home crowd as he began the fourth quarter with a one-handed jam on a fast break followed by a two-handed dunk down the lane. Senior forward Darryl LeVert's three-point play with 6:33 remaining gave Central a 49-32 lead, matching its biggest advantage in the game.
Point guard Mike Wells led Delaware with 22 points. The senior guard hit a 3-pointer with 4:09 left to make it 53-43, but that would be the closest the Pacers would get. Sophomore forward Khalil Iverson finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds, with senior forward Griffin Kinney adding 11 points and seven rebounds.
"We have been wanting to do that all year, get a run, extend the lead, get some easy baskets, gain some confidence and build from your defense from there," Tigers coach Jerry Francis said. "We have struggled with that all year. I was happy that we finished."
Scioto was 18-4 before playing Central. The winner will face seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman or 16th-seeded Grove City in a district semifinal at 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, at Pickerington North.
Central split its league games with Grove City, winning 74-64 on Dec. 21 and losing 79-66 on Feb. 1.
The semifinal winner will play fourth-seeded New Albany, sixth-seeded Zanesville, 18th-seeded Olentangy Orange or 28th-seeded Mount Vernon for a district title March 9 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
Panthers eliminated by Walnut Ridge
North, seeded 25th, saw its season end with a 50-41 opening-round district tournament loss at 20th-seeded Walnut Ridge on Feb. 23.
Senior forward Desmond Palmer had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers, who finished 10-13.
Sophomore guard Dajon Moore had 12 points and three assists, and senior guard DeVon Price added 11 points.
"We had major breakdowns on defense. Every part of the game plan, we had breakdowns," coach Pete Liptrap said. "I'm disappointed with the way we started. Give Walnut Ridge credit, they kept us at bay and they deserved to move on."
Senior forward Robert Wheelwright led Walnut Ridge with a game-high 14 points. The Scots, who jumped out to a 9-0 lead, also received 13 points from junior forward Robert Bowers.
The Panthers trailed 21-14 at halftime. Liptrap said his team cut its deficit to five points on a couple of occasions in the second half, but got no closer.
"We were still in it, we couldn't make the play we needed to, to get over the hump," Liptrap said.
"We were behind the eight ball all night. We just didn't play hard enough."
Walnut Ridge improved to 13-8 and advanced to play 12th-seeded Westerville South in a second-round game Feb. 27.
"We're going to have to have a good offseason," said Liptrap, whose team loses eight seniors.