The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team's run to a second consecutive Division I district title featured two upsets of higher seeds, a first-round home game that hung in the balance until the final minutes and a second-half comeback in the district final.
The Tigers' regional semifinal game might not offer a breather, either, and Central knows that firsthand.
Tenth-seeded Central edged 18th-seeded Olentangy Orange 62-55 in a district final March 9 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum to advance within four wins of its second consecutive state title.
The Tigers' next obstacle is a regional semifinal against OCC-Ohio Division foe Gahanna at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at the Fairgrounds.
A 72-62 loss to Gahanna on Feb. 15 cost the Tigers the outright league title, creating a four-way tie with Grove City, Newark and Reynoldsburg. Gahanna defeated Newark 64-54 in another district final March 9.
"Just having three teams from our division (in district finals) says a lot about how hard our league really is," said junior forward Jae'Sean Tate, who scored a team-high 23 points with nine rebounds against Orange. "Every time we play one of those teams, it's a battle."
Central, which is 19-7, overcame a sometimes sluggish first-half performance against Orange to dominate the second half. After the Tigers trailed 28-26 at halftime, Tate scored 12 points in the third, highlighted by the first of two monstrous dunks on the day, and senior guard Kyran Boyd's 3-pointer at the buzzer pushed the Tigers' lead to 46-35.
But 18th-seeded Orange, which upset fourth-seeded and OCC-Capital foe New Albany 46-45 in overtime in a district semifinal March 6 at Pickerington North, was within 51-48 with 3 minutes, 33 seconds to play before missing four consecutive free throws.
Central took advantage with a running layup by freshman forward Jalen Tate and another 3-pointer from Boyd en route to making it 58-48 with 2:22 left.
The Tigers held the Pioneers to 2-for-5 shooting in the third quarter and forced six turnovers.
Junior guard Connor Kern had 13 points and nine rebounds and Jalen Tate added 11 points for Central.
"I wanted to switch up our defenses (from man-to-man to zone) but our assistants wanted us to stay down and guard and make plays," coach Jerry Francis said.
"We were fortunate enough to get to the free-throw line and make some baskets and extend the lead."
The Tigers advanced by upsetting seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman 73-54 in a district semifinal March 6 at North. That came after they defeated Delaware 66-53 in the first round Feb. 23 and upset fifth-seeded Dublin Scioto 59-57 in overtime in the second round Feb. 27.
All of that sets up the season's third meeting with Gahanna. Central won the first game 59-46 on Jan. 11. Jae'Sean Tate's 32 points weren't enough for the Tigers in the second game, when Gahanna got 20 points from senior guard Aaron Jackson, 16 from senior guard Ronnie Stokes and 13 each from junior guard Manny Powell and sophomore guard Javon Bess, who was on Central's 2012 state title team.
Lions coach Tony Staib, whose team defeated Reynoldsburg 42-38 in a district semifinal March 6, wasn't particularly enthused about facing a third consecutive league opponent.
"This has been torture," he said. "It's been like an OCC-Ohio tournament for us. I haven't slept in a week and now we get the defending state champions. I guess I won't be sleeping this week either."
The regional semifinal winner will play Canton Timken or Northland in a regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 16, at the Fairgrounds. The regional champion will play Mentor, North Canton Hoover, North Royalton or Shaker Heights in a state semifinal at 5:15 p.m. March 22 at Ohio State.
Central defeated Timken 69-53 in its opener Dec. 1 and lost to Northland 58-42 on Dec. 8. But those games aren't on the Tigers' minds -- at least not yet.
"(Winning a district title) is a great feeling," Boyd said. "To step up to the plate and pitch in as a senior, that's a great feeling."