The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team spent the second Saturday of March doing the same thing it has done each of the previous two years -- cutting down the nets at the Fairgrounds Coliseum after winning a Division I district championship.
But for several reasons, this one felt different for the Tigers.
Having made their name largely as a high-powered, high-scoring team in recent years, sixth-seeded Central relied on defense to defeat fourth-seeded Zanesville 58-42 on March 8.
After the Blue Devils made their first four shots, the Tigers made seven of their next 12 to take a 22-13 lead and never trailed again. Coupling an effective transition game with its stingy man-to-man defense, Central held Zanesville to three field goals in the first 12 minutes, 25 seconds of the second half to steadily pull away.
"Defense, defense, defense," senior guard Connor Kern said of last week's emphasis in practice. "(Interim coach Eric Krueger) was definitely drilling it into our minds all week in practice. We worked on ball screens a lot to not let them go around the middle screen. That helped our defense out a lot."
Standing next to Kern during a postgame interview, Krueger nodded in approval.
"Exactly," he said. "We have to sit down and guard. You get to the district finals and the regional (tournament) and you have to be strong defensively. You have to be tough and get stops. That is the only way you're going to win at this point."
Rodney Culver added 11 points and 11 rebounds for Central, which improved to 20-5 and advanced to play Upper Arlington in a regional semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 13, at the Fairgrounds.
"With how much we've overcome as a team, it feels great being here," Kern said, referring to the losses of Ohio State signee Jae'Sean Tate to a torn labrum in his right shoulder and coach Jerry Francis to season-ending health issues in January. "This (district title) was better. It's better than all of the other ones."
The district final followed Central outlasting 17th-seeded Marysville 89-83 in a semifinal March 5 at Westerville Central. The Tigers have scored fewer than 60 points in a win only twice this season, while surpassing 80 points eight times and scoring at least 90 points on five occasions.
Kern's career-high 33 points carried Central past Marysville. Culver had 22 points and Jalen Tate scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, when Marysville erased much of a 50-30 deficit.
Central and UA did not play during the regular season.
The Golden Bears, who are 24-1 and were seeded third in the district tournament, held off second-seeded Gahanna 55-49 in a district final March 8. The Bears watched Central's win over Zanesville and anticipate the regional semifinal to be much like their district final.
"They're very talented, very athletic," UA coach Tim Casey said of Central. "They're long. They really get to the basket. Kern is a really good shooter. He is money from the free-throw line (where Kern was 9-for-10 against Zanesville). They're formidable. They have the experience. They've been there before. We have our work cut out for us."
North Carolina-Asheville signee Kevin Vannatta, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, paces the Bears -- who use a three-guard lineup -- with averages of 17.3 points and 6.2 rebounds. He had 26 points against Gahanna.
UA went 13-1 in the OCC-Central Division to win the league championship.
The regional semifinal winner plays Dublin Coffman or Northland in the regional final at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at the Fairgrounds.
Kern scored 30 points, Culver had 18 and Jae'Sean Tate had 17 as Central defeated Northland 74-70 on Jan. 25. That was Tate's final high school game.
The Tigers did not play Coffman during the regular season.
The regional champion plays in a state semifinal March 21 at Ohio State.
Groves: Panthers face 'huge offseason'
After a season in which North went 3-20 overall and 2-12 in the OCC-Ohio, coach Jerry Groves wasted no time reminding his players how much work will be necessary for the Panthers to improve in 2014-15.
"This is a huge offseason for Pickerington North basketball," Groves said minutes after the season ended with a 75-47 loss at UA in the first round of the district tournament Feb. 21. "It could go either of two ways. We could get a lot better, tougher and stronger, or we could have kids who come back the same. I hope they come back better, win more games and play better."
Groves succeeded 10-year coach Pete Liptrap last July, taking over a team that returned only 5.6 points per game and little varsity experience. Groves liberally rotated players much of the season in an attempt to find consistency on offense and defense and eventually saw some standouts emerge, including special-mention all-league and honorable mention all-district guard Bryce Montes, a junior.
Montes averaged a team-best 9.2 points and added 4.7 rebounds per game. Junior forward Andrew Butt averaged five points and 6.9 rebounds.
Sophomore guard Zach Montes averaged 5.8 points and was a team-best 79.3-percent from the free-throw line (23-for-29). He was honorable mention all-league.
The Panthers were seventh in the OCC-Ohio behind Central (11-3), Gahanna (11-3), Newark (11-3), Grove City (9-5), Reynoldsburg (8-6) and Groveport (4-10) and ahead of Lancaster (0-14).
North's wins came against Lancaster -- 53-36 on Dec. 13 and 46-40 on Jan. 24 -- and Thornville Sheridan, 49-40 on Dec. 30. The Panthers were seeded 38th in the district tournament.
"Our guys got better this year," Groves said. "They have to get stronger to compete. We have some kids in the program who are willing to do that."