Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis took some comfort, at least outwardly, in his belief that the Tigers overachieved this year by reaching a Division I regional semifinal.
After Central's season ended with a 53-50 loss to Gahanna on March 14 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, Francis admitted the defeat was a rude awakening for his players, who had a second consecutive state championship in their sights.
"We coaches know reality," Francis said. "We're a young team and we had some transition as far as personnel, but we've exceeded all expectations all year. The kids did a great job. I'm proud of the boys."
Junior forward Jae'Sean Tate did his best to will the Tigers to victory, amassing game highs of 31 points and 21 rebounds and scoring 14 points in the third quarter to help his team take a 35-31 lead. That lead grew to 37-31 moments into the fourth before Gahanna went on a 9-0 run to take the lead for good. Lions senior guard Ronnie Stokes Jr. went coast-to-coast for a layup to tie the game at 37, and senior guard Aaron Jackson added a three-point play and layup for a 42-40 lead.
Just as crucial for Gahanna was containing Tate, who didn't score for the first 6 minutes, 47 seconds of the fourth.
"Our main thing in the huddle was we had to get stops," Gahanna coach Tony Staib said. "On the offensive end, we were getting good looks from transition and in the half-court."
Trailing 50-42 with 1:13 to play, Central rallied. Tate had a basket and a putback then followed two misses from senior guard Kyran Boyd with a layup and added another close-range shot to make it 51-50 with 31 seconds to go.
A Lions timeout with 22.6 seconds left gave Central a chance to draw up a play.
Using Tate as a decoy, two 3-point attempts by junior guard Connor Kern in the final five seconds missed, and the Tigers dropped the rubber match of their season series with the Lions. Central and Gahanna split two OCC-Ohio Division games, with the Tigers winning 59-46 on Jan. 11 before the Lions won 72-62 at Central on Feb. 15, costing the Tigers the outright league championship.
Gahanna went on to lose to Northland 62-53 in a regional final March 16.
"We wanted to screen Connor off the flare. They tipped it, we were able to gather and Connor took a tough shot," Francis said. "Darryl (LeVert, a senior forward) released, got the rebound and the defense was sucked in and Connor had another great look. He just wasn't able to knock it down.
"I thought the second one was a much better look."
Central finished 19-8 overall after challenging itself with a schedule that included the Chick-Fil-A Basketball Classic in South Charleston, W.Va. in late December, two shootouts and non-league dates with Northland and eventual regional semifinalist Canton Timken. The Tigers won nine of 10 games after a 2-2 start and were 9-1 in the OCC-Ohio after defeating Pickerington North 59-45 in overtime Jan. 29, but they lost three of their final four league games. Two of those losses came to Grove City (79-66 on Feb. 1) and Newark (55-50 on Feb. 5), who along with Reynoldsburg shared the league title with Central at 10-4.
They finished ahead of Gahanna (9-5), North (4-10), Groveport (2-12) and Lancaster (1-13).
The Tigers earned the 10th seed for the district tournament, opening with a 66-53 home win over Delaware on Feb. 23 before upsetting fifth-seeded and host Dublin Scioto 59-57 in overtime Feb. 27. Central cruised past seventh-seeded Dublin Coffman 73-54 in a semifinal March 6 at Pickerington North before holding off 18th-seeded Olentangy Orange 62-55 in a district final March 9 at the Fairgrounds. It was the Tigers' second consecutive district title and fifth overall; they also won in 1959, 1991 and 2002.
"At the beginning of the year, we lost a couple and people started doubting us, but I knew we would peak as soon as tournament time came," said Tate, a first-team all-league and all-district honoree who also is ThisWeek's Super 12 captain. He averaged 21.9 points and 12 rebounds.
The Tigers lose five seniors, although they played most of the year with only four after forward Taco Charlton graduated early to enroll at the University of Michigan, where he will play football. LeVert, an honorable mention all-league selection and regular starter, averaged 6.4 points.
Boyd and senior guards Vontress Middleton and Theo Williamson saw time off the bench, with Boyd averaging 3.7 points.
Among Central's expected returnees are Kern (15 points, second-team all-league, honorable mention all-district), Tate and 6-foot-5 freshman forward and regular starter Jalen Tate (4.3 points), Jae'Sean's brother.