The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team’s first state tournament game played out much the same as its previous three games in this postseason run.
The Tigers started fast but watched their opponent stay close, only to clinch victory in the closing minutes.
Jae’Sean Tate had 16 points and 13 rebounds and Caris LeVert had 13 points to lead Central to a 60-45 win over Fairfield in a Division I state semifinal March 23 at Ohio State. The Tigers improved to 25-2 and advanced to play Toledo Whitmer (24-2) in the state final at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 24.
“This is my dream to play here and, now that I’m here, I’m just trying to perform,” Tate said. “I’ve practiced hard this week and when I got out here, all the nerves disappeared with the tip of the ball.”
Fairfield (21-6) trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half but pulled to within five points at 42-37 with 6 minutes, 44 seconds left. However, LeVert keyed a 10-3 run by saving a ball in mid-air along the baseline to teammate Connor Kern, who then assisted on a LeVert layup at the other end. LeVert then scored on a running layup and made a 10-foot jump shot to make it 52-40 with 3:14 left.
“My jump shot wasn’t falling, so I just wanted to get to the hole and my team did a great job getting me the ball and helping me get some good looks,” LeVert said. “I felt a little bit of pressure, but my teammates did a great job getting me the ball in that stretch.”
Tate scored 10 points in the first half. Equally important was Fairfield's 6-foot-7 center, Brandon Murphy, got into foul trouble. He sat with his third foul with a minute left in the first half and committed his fourth foul halfway through the third quarter.
“That was big,” Tigers coach Jerry Francis said. “We had to continue to play inside-out and attack them inside. We did a great job staying in front of them, then we had to finish over the top. I tell our guys all the time basketball is a game of runs and spurts and peaks and valleys.”
Javon Bess added 10 points for Central. Devon Barlow had 11 points and Murphy scored 10 for Fairfield.
Whitmer defeated Lakewood St. Edward 62-51 in the first semifinal. Whitmer sprinted to a 22-2 lead, only to watch St. Edward get within three points at 40-37 with 6:31 left. But a jump shot by Leroy Alexander and a layup by Ricardo Smith made it 47-38 with 5:31 left.
Nigel Hayes had 18 points and 13 rebounds for Whitmer, and Alexander, a Nebraska football recruit, scored 17.
“(They have) great size and great toughness,” Francis said of Whitmer. “We look forward to matching up with their athletes.”