The Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team defeated Pickerington North twice during the regular season, and the Tigers were bound and determined not to have a letdown when they met the Panthers in a Division I regional final March 18.

Central looked like it was on a mission from the opening tip, building a sizable rebounding advantage and using hustle to pull away for a 75-58 win at Ohio Dominican University.

The Tigers, who won their first regional championship since 2012 and the second in program history, improved to 26-2 and will play Cincinnati Moeller (27-0) in a state semifinal at 5:15 p.m. March 24 at Ohio State. Moeller and Central finished first and second, respectively, in the final state poll.

Jeremiah Francis and Sterling Manley each scored 21 points to power Central, which steadily built on a 37-25 halftime advantage and led 57-36 after three quarters. Manley pulled down 11 rebounds and blocked five shots, and Francis added seven rebounds and four assists.

Juan Elmore added 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.

“There’s just a certain way these guys are playing, and I know them well enough to know when they are playing well,” Tigers coach Eric Krueger said. “We wanted to keep attacking and bring (the Panthers) out of the zone they were playing. We got by them and finished, and we really stressed our offensive rebounding. That was a big edge for us.”

Jerome Hunter’s game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds led North, which finished 21-7 and was in its first regional tournament. Dondre Palmer added 11 points.

“We didn’t do the little things,” Panthers coach Jason Bates said. “The last two games, we were a little more focused. The guys knew how big a moment this was, but we came up short in rebounding and stopping the ball in transition.”

Central, which leads the all-time series 15-4, used a 13-0 run just before halftime to pull away. North went scoreless for a 4-minute, 46-second stretch of the second quarter.

“We’ve been on a mission all year and now there’s only two games left,” Manley said. “We always play with a chip on our shoulder. People doubt us because of this and that. We feed on that stuff.”

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave