Connor Kern muscled his way through two Reynoldsburg defenders, strong-arming in a layup to give the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team a 9-1 lead moments into their OCC-Ohio Division game Dec. 13.
Moments later, Kern made a 3-pointer to push the Tigers' lead to 16-1.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior guard also clinched a 69-66 win by making two free throws with 9.8 seconds to play, giving him a team-high 19 points. But it was another part of his stat line -- 13 rebounds -- that reinforced the ability he has gained to handle the dirty work inside.
Having made his name the past two years as a 3-point shooter, Kern acknowledged he wouldn't have seen this change in his game when, as a sophomore, he helped Central win the Division I state championship.
"No, definitely not," he said, laughing. "I was just an around-the-perimeter guy. But ever since I matured in my game and really started focusing more on the weight room, I figured I'd be able to get rebounds.
"I was just trying to be tough down low and get physical with them. I knew they were face-guarding me around the perimeter. I was going to have to get rebounds and get points in the paint."
Kern, an Arkansas State signee, was averaging 17.8 points through four games for the Tigers, who took records of 3-1 overall and 2-0 in the OCC-Ohio into a Dec. 17 home game against Pickerington North.
Jae'Sean Tate, an Ohio State signee, was averaging a team-high 22.8 points.
"(Kern is a) pure shooter," said Tate, a 6-5, 220-pound senior forward. "He might miss three or four shots the whole day in practice sometimes. With him, we're so much of a big threat spreading the wings that I can drive or Connor get open outside. We complement each other's games."
Kern said he bulked up by between 25 and 30 pounds from last season. He usually is the last Tigers player out of the gym at night, sometimes staying as long as 90 minutes after practice to get in extra shooting.
"He's a self-made man. No question about it," coach Jerry Francis said. "He's been in situations where he's able to come up big for us inside. He gets every rebound he can. We all have to rebound. We're undersized. We're smaller this year than we have been, so everybody has to be able to rebound.
"The last phase of every great defensive effort is to rebound the ball."
The Reynoldsburg game hardly was the first time Kern asserted himself in the paint. He had two dunks in a 95-43 league win at Lancaster on Dec. 9.
On Dec. 14 against Huntington (W.Va.) Prep in the Cannonsburg (Ky.) Boyd County Roundball Classic, Kern returned to his usual scoring method, as 12 of his 20 points in a 93-72 loss came on 3-pointers. He scored six consecutive points in one stretch and five more in another to help the Tigers get within 56-54 in the second half.
Tate had 26 points, tied for the game high with Huntington Prep's JaQuan Lyle.
Kern also keeps busy with a steady load of honors classes as well as participation in Sunny Side Up, a peer action group at Central, and youth activities at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Pickerington. He is among a group that gives shoes to needy children in Harlan County, Ky., meeting each child personally to deliver the gifts.
Kern verbally committed to Wheeling Jesuit before his junior season, but continued looking at other options after a junior season in which he averaged 15 points and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Eventually, Kern found a perfect fit at Arkansas State, a Sun Belt Conference school, and signed Nov. 13.
"The facilities were just mind-boggling," he said. "I really like the coaching staff and their style of play. I feel like I'll really fit in. They run up and down, just like coach Francis."
North boys break into win column
North boys coach Jerry Groves admitted a 53-36 win over Lancaster in an OCC-Ohio game Dec. 13, the Panthers' first victory, wasn't always pretty.
"We were three of 17 from the free-throw line, but we competed hard defensively and ended up shooting 47 percent from the floor in the second half. We had been shooting 28 percent for the season, and we might have had 70 points if we'd put some more shots in," Groves said.
"We pride ourselves on the defensive end, and we got some important stops and created some offense from there."
Jordan Chambers scored 14 points and Justin Anderson had 12, both season highs entering the week, and Bryce Montes added 11 points off the bench.
Anderson had missed about two weeks with an ankle sprain.
"He was able to get some easy baskets. Bryce gave us some good minutes, too," Groves said. "We're learning to score. That can take awhile. You can't just make guys score. That can be a process, and it's good to see when they do put points up."
The Panthers were 1-3 overall and 1-1 in the OCC-Ohio before facing Central on Dec. 17.