If Jae’Sean Tate of the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team had his way, he would have sealed a Division I state championship with a dunk.
His perseverance ended up working just as well.
Tate missed a dunk with a minute to play March 24 against Toledo Whitmer, but teammate Javon Bess grabbed the rebound, lobbed to Tate over 6-foot-8, 265-pound Whitmer center Chris Wormley and Tate finished with a layup to give the Tigers a five-point lead. The Panthers never got closer, and the Tigers took home the program’s first state title with a 45-40 victory at Ohio State.
“We tried to run that (play in a state semifinal victory over Fairfield) a couple times,” said Tate, a sophomore guard and Toledo native. “We weren’t looking to force shots. We wanted to take time and get the easiest shot.”
Caris LeVert had a game-high 20 points and Tate added 10 for Central, which was making its first state tournament appearance and finished 26-2. Taco Charlton added six points and six rebounds.
“I’m really proud of all the boys,” Tigers coach Jerry Francis said. “I’ve told my sophomores that they’ve played enough games to consider themselves juniors by now. We’re fortunate that those guys made the plays.
“Whitmer is a great team. I’m just happy to get out of here with a win. It feels good.”
Bess and Chad Nelson went 3-for-4 at the foul line in the final 9.1 seconds to secure the win.
Central came in averaging 65 points and Whitmer was averaging 56, but the Tigers weren’t surprised at the sometimes sluggish, grind-it-out tempo. Whitmer scored the game’s first five points and it was tied at 19 at halftime. The teams matched baskets for the first six minutes of the third quarter, but LeVert hit a jumper and a 3-pointer to give the Tigers a 32-27 lead.
“We actually didn’t watch a scouting report on them, but we knew they liked to slow it down, so we expected that type of tough game,” said LeVert, who scored 11 points in the third quarter. “We weren’t scoring very much on offense, so the coaches came to me and told me I needed to score. I just tried my best to do that.”
Leroy Alexander had 19 points and Nigel Hayes added 15 points and nine rebounds for Whitmer (24-3).
“Tate got some baskets that if we’d have had more pressure down low, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten them,” Whitmer coach Bruce Smith said. “They’re just a little bit bigger inside. (LeVert) was probably the difference-maker. He’s so tough to defend. We just came up short against a tremendous basketball team.”