In the moments after his strategy paid off, Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis expounded on why he slotted his 10th-seeded Tigers to play a Division I district tournament second-round game at fifth-seeded Dublin Scioto on Feb. 27.
"I'm not afraid to say we wanted to stay away from the guys in our conference (the OCC-Ohio Division) and to do that, we weren't going to have the easiest time here," Francis said. "I'm proud of our boys. They've won close games all season and they've shown a lot of character. They did it again (Feb. 27). We had to get in and get out of here with a win."
The defending state champion Tigers, who were one of four OCC-Ohio teams to play in district semifinals along with eighth-seeded Reynoldsburg, ninth-seeded Gahanna and 13th-seeded Newark, won 59-57 at Scioto but didn't feel secure until freshman forward Jalen Tate's layup with 19 seconds to play in overtime. Central caught Scioto on a screen, Tate was able to get behind the defense and freshman guard D.J. Tyree fired a pass to him to the left of the basket with almost no defensive coverage.
"We've practiced that play a few times. I just went up the floor quickly and saw I was open," said Tate, whose brother, junior forward Jae'Sean Tate, scored a team-high 26 points. "We looked at the bracket and knew it wouldn't be easy. But we're used to tough games. We have been all year. We felt like we could compete with some tough teams."
Senior guard Josh Ashwill's 33 points and five 3-pointers led Scioto. His 3 with 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter tied the game at 49, and Tigers senior forward Darryl LeVert missed a 3 at the regulation buzzer.
Two free throws by senior guard Connor Kern gave Central a 57-54 lead with 42.7 seconds left in overtime, and in transition after a missed Scioto free throw moments later, Tate scored what proved to be the winning basket. Ashwill missed a half-court shot as time expired.
"I love close games," said Kern, who finished with 13 points. "You heard the crowd in the fourth quarter. It was almost deafening in there. This is fun. It's how the tournament should be. We haven't had an easy game all year."
Central improved to 17-7 and advanced to play seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman in a district semifinal March 6 at Pickerington North. The winner will play fourth-seeded New Albany or 18th-seeded Olentangy Orange in a district final at noon Saturday, March 9, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The Tigers did not play either of their potential district final opponents during the regular season.
The district champion will play Gahanna, Newark, Rey-noldsburg or Westerville North in a regional semifinal March 14 at the Fairgrounds.
Panthers looking to rebound next year
After a 10-13 season, North coach Pete Liptrap made sure his players understood there's plenty of work to be done if the Panthers are to return to OCC-Ohio title contention.
The 25th-seeded Panthers lost 50-41 at 20th-seeded Walnut Ridge in a Division I district tournament first-round game Feb. 23.
"We had five points of emphasis against (Walnut Ridge) and we went 0-for-5, probably for the first time all year," Liptrap said. "We struggled scoring the ball all year (averaging 43.7 points) and we weren't a good free-throw team either (58.8 percent, 157-for-267). That puts a lot of strain on your defense. Our conference is one of the best in the state. We had a good group that worked hard and battled well, but our record is what it is for a reason."
North finished sixth (4-10) in the OCC-Ohio behind co-champions Central, Grove City, Newark and Reynoldsburg (all 10-4) and Gahanna (9-5). Groveport (2-12) and Lancaster (1-13) rounded out the standings.
The Panthers started the season 3-1 but were hampered almost from the outset by the absence of senior guard Mason Olszewski, who missed the season with stress fractures sustained during football season, and the departure of senior forward Jake Butt after five games to play football for the University of Michigan.
Among North's nine losses to graduation are first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district guard DeVon Price (12.7 points per game), and second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district forward Desmond Palmer (7.4 points, 9.3 rebounds). Leading the expected returnees is sophomore point guard Dajon Moore, an honorable mention all-league selection.
"This year was a great experience for (Moore). He stood up to the challenge," Liptrap said.
"He learned a lot of basketball and he has the potential to be a great player, like a lot of our guys do, with some hard work."