Leading by 12 points after the first quarter of a Division I regional semifinal March 13, the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team had every reason to think its press defense would continue to hold Upper Arlington at bay.
But by late in the second half, the Tigers were at a loss after watching the Golden Bears repeatedly break the press for layup after layup.
Senior-laden UA hit on all cylinders, forcing Central into foul trouble by late in the second quarter and reeling off an 11-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters to win 63-53 at the Fairgrounds Coliseum.
"It was a game we could have won," interim coach Eric Krueger said. "We tried to keep it together. They did a great job defensively. I don't know exactly what adjustments they made, but their guards really hurt us getting into the lane. Our foul trouble really hurt us, and I think our inexperience did it at times, too."
UA has seven seniors to Central's three, only one of whom -- Connor Kern -- played on a regular basis late in the season. Kern had 23 points, capped by a 25-foot 3-pointer in the final seconds, and sophomore forward Jalen Tate had 14 points as Central finished 20-6 overall.
Junior guard Rodney Culver had seven points and seven rebounds, but like Tate and sophomore guard D.J. Tyree had to sit for stretches of the second half with three or more fouls.
Kern, an Arkansas State signee, averaged 25.8 points in five postseason games for the Tigers, who won their third consecutive district championship and shared their third league title in a row.
North Carolina-Asheville signee Kevin Vannatta's 29 points and seven rebounds led UA. Danny Hummer added 13 points and eight rebounds.
"I'm not sure we broke them down," UA coach Tim Casey said. "We managed to execute much better. We built the lead, then all of a sudden they had to chase. And we have a lot of capable guys who can handle the ball, don't hide from it and make plays. We stayed aggressive."
Central overcame the loss of its coach and arguably its best player to make another deep postseason run.
Krueger took over the Tigers in the second week of January after coach Jerry Francis suffered a stroke. Francis then underwent back surgery, keeping him away from the team for the rest of the season.
Central started 8-0 under Krueger, with the last of those wins coming in the team's first game without senior forward Jae'Sean Tate. The Ohio State signee sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder last summer and played until Jan. 25 before opting to undergo season-ending surgery.
The Tigers clinched a tie for the OCC-Ohio Division championship with a 59-48 win at Pickerington North on Feb. 11, but had to settle for sharing the title with Gahanna and Newark after losing to Gahanna 73-72 on Feb. 14.
Each of those teams advanced to district finals, but Central was the only one to win.
The Tigers, Lions and Wildcats each went 11-3 in the OCC-Ohio to finish ahead of Grove City (9-5), Reynoldsburg (8-6), Groveport (4-10), North (2-12) and Lancaster (0-14).
Seeded sixth in the district tournament, Central began the postseason with two home wins. The Tigers defeated 36th-seeded Columbus West 78-64 on Feb. 21 and 34th-seeded Canal Winchester 71-47 on Feb. 26 before outlasting 17th-seeded Marysville 89-83 in a district semifinal March 5. Kern scored a career-high 33 points in the semifinal.
The Tigers captured a district title with a 58-42 win over fourth-seeded Zanesville on March 8.
Kern (19.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists) and Jae'Sean Tate were first-team all-league and all-district. Tate and Kern are the school's top two leading scorers, with 1,489 and 1,414 points, respectively.
Tate shared OCC-Ohio Player of the Year honors with Gahanna's Javon Bess, who played on Central's 2012 state championship team. Krueger shared Coach of the Year honors with Gahanna's Tony Staib and Newark's Jeff Quackenbush.
Culver (13.9 points, 8.0 rebounds) was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district. Jalen Tate (9.3 points) was honorable mention all-league.
Other expected returnees include junior guards Eric Johnson and Dajon Moore and sophomore forward Jaylin Bannerman, all of whom started most of the second half of the season.
"They have nothing to hang their heads about," Krueger said. "We need to continue to be positive moving forward. I told the seniors (Kern, Jae'Sean Tate and guard Corey Taylor) how much I love them and all they've done for this program. They won a state championship and three district titles. Those three guys are the fabric of Pickerington Tiger basketball."