The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team enters the postseason as OCC-Ohio Division champion for the third consecutive year, but the Tigers had to settle for sharing the title for the second season in a row.
Central had clinched a share of the OCC-Ohio championship with a 59-48 win at Pickerington North on Feb. 11 and needed to beat Gahanna in its regular-season finale Feb. 14 at Otterbein University to win the title outright.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured seven ties and three lead changes in the final two minutes, the Tigers lost to the Lions 73-72 as Connor Kern missed a 3-pointer as time expired. The Lions scored the winning basket on a layup by Manny Powell with 7.5 seconds left, avenging a 62-58 loss at Central on Jan. 10.
Newark defeated Lancaster 76-44 on Feb. 14 to forge a three-way tie for first in the OCC-Ohio. Central, Gahanna and Newark all finished 11-3 in league play.
"It kills us right now to end up losing, but that's just basketball," interim coach Eric Krueger said. "We're one play away from winning it outright. This is a great preparation game to get ready for the (Division I district) tournament."
Central shared the OCC-Ohio title with Grove City, Newark and Reynoldsburg last season after winning it outright in 2011-12.
Kern scored 29 points in the first matchup with Gahanna, surpassing 1,000 points for his career in the contest. No one seemed surprised, then, that he took the final shot in the rematch.
With 2.6 seconds left, Kern took an inbounds pass from Jalen Tate near the top of key outside the 3-point arc, went to his left under tight defense by Gahanna's Jenisys Battle and took an off-balance shot that bounced off the right side of the rim as the buzzer sounded.
"If (Kern) wasn't open, I was going to slash to the basket and go for a layup," said Rodney Culver, who scored a game-high 26 points.
"Gahanna blew it up. Connor was still able to get (off) the (shot), but not as cleanly as he might have."
Kern had 25 points and moved ahead of Rush Floyd into second place on Central's all-time scoring list with 1,239 points. Floyd, a 1990 Pickerington graduate, finished with 1,220 career points and went on to play for Ohio University.
Central, which is 16-5 overall, has turned its attention to the district tournament. Seeded sixth of 45 teams, the Tigers will play host to 36th-seeded Columbus West in a first-round game Friday, Feb. 21.
The Cowboys are 7-15 and are led by senior guard Charles Holland, who is averaging 25.2 points and scored a career-high 40 points against Independence on Dec. 17. Holland averaged 24 points, 6.7 rebounds and four assists last season.
The first-round winner will play 34th-seeded Canal Winchester in the second round Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the home of the higher seed. The winner of that game advances to a district semifinal March 5 at Westerville Central.
The Tigers did not play West or Canal Winchester during the regular season.
"We have a tough matchup out of the gate," Krueger said. "They have a good player and we'll be ready to go. Canal is sort of a rivalry kind of game, a border game there. No bracket is easy."
Panthers getting set for tourney opener
With his team seeded 38th and left with few spots to go on the Division I district tournament bracket, North coach Jerry Groves chose a first-round matchup at third-seeded Upper Arlington on Friday, Feb. 21.
"There just aren't a whole lot of options when you have the seed that we did," Groves said. "We just looked at the things we are capable of doing and who is on the bracket. Arlington is a fantastic team. We love the opportunity to play one of the best teams in the district. You take what you can get at that point and hope that you've given yourself a chance."
UA is 20-1 and won the OCC-Central championship. The Golden Bears are led by Kevin Vannatta, a 6-foot-3 senior guard and UNC-Asheville signee who is averaging 16.4 points, six rebounds and 2.3 assists, and Danny Hummer, a senior point guard who is averaging 8.2 points, 4.1 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals.
UA is averaging 53.1 points and allowing an average of 36.5. North is averaging 47 points and allowing 57.8.
"The thing about Arlington is their scores tend to be a little bit low," Groves said.
"That's just the style they play and they're very good at it. We don't score a lot, so maybe for us that slower pace gives us a fighting chance. We have our work cut out for us."
The North-UA winner will play 30th-seeded Olentangy in a second-round game Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the home of the higher seed. The winner of that game advances to a district semifinal March 5 at Marysville.
North, which is 3-19 overall and finished 2-12 in the OCC-Ohio, did not play UA or Olentangy during the regular season.
Zach Montes had 11 points and Devin Davie scored nine on three 3-pointers in a 67-50 league loss at Grove City on Feb. 14. Bryce Montes had a team-high 21 points in the league loss to Central.