With a third consecutive Division I district championship secured, the Pickerington High School Central girls basketball team's quest for redemption began March 6 when it played Gahanna in a Division I regional semifinal.
The Tigers have lost at that stage of the postseason each of the past two years, falling 53-51 to Newark in 2016 and 71-68 to Dublin Coffman last year.
If Central was to make this time different and get a chance to reach its first state tournament since 2006, the Tigers will be happy to rely on their defense. They allowed an average of 19 points in their first four tournament games, including a 54-12 rout of 23rd-seeded Olentangy Liberty in a district final March 3 at Ohio Dominican.
Despite scoring only 16 points in the first half, Central used half-court man-to-man and some trapping zone defenses to hold Liberty without a field goal for a span of 14 minutes, 36 seconds, starting in the first quarter and ending in the third. The Tigers led only 16-6 at halftime but already had forced 14 turnovers.
"That (defense) is what we want our staple to be," said coach Johnathan Hedgepeth, whose team was 24-2 entering the regional semifinal. "Even though we were struggling shooting the ball, defensively we'd only given up six points at halftime so it was just about being more patient and making sure we got better shots. We had a little run to start the second half that really helped our confidence offensively. ...
"Even though we've been (to a district final) before, it's still nerve-wracking trying to get off to a good start. Shots weren't falling, but as we got confidence, they started falling."
A 12-0 run to start the second half sealed the outcome and shook Central out of a shooting slump that saw it go 5-for-33 from the floor in the first half.
Madison Greene scored a game-high nine points and Adrian Crockwell added eight for the Tigers.
"We were playing (Liberty's) game, letting them slow us down and we feed off of transition," guard Maliya Perry said. "We just wanted to turn our defense into offense and go from there. We tried to double up and mainly press them everywhere, be backside and be able to rotate. It worked.
"Defense is our bread and butter, so we just have to keep turning our defense into offense."
Perry had a game-high 16 points in Central's 63-39 win over 25th-seeded Hilliard Davidson in a district semifinal Feb. 28 at Hamilton Township.
The Central-Gahanna winner will play Newark or Westerville South in the regional final Friday, March 9, at Otterbein. The regional champion advances to a state semifinal March 15 at Ohio State.
The Tigers played both of their potential regional final opponents during the regular season, defeating South 59-40 on Jan. 9 and then-undefeated Newark 60-38 on Feb. 10. The Wildcats were 24-1 before playing South in the other regional semifinal March 6.
"(A regional title is) a lot of motivation, but we're taking it one game at a time," Greene said. "If we keep playing like we're playing right now, I think we can take it all the way."
Branson heads to state wrestling meet
Watching former teammate Shota Sisco compete in last year's Division I state wrestling tournament made an indelible impression on Bo Branson, and now the sophomore is looking forward to living that experience for himself Thursday, March 8, through Saturday, March 10, at Ohio State.
Branson went 5-1 and finished third at 113 pounds in the district tournament held March 2 and 3 at Hilliard Darby. The top four finishers in each weight class advanced to state.
"It's exhilarating," Branson said. "I want to be following in my hero's (Sisco) footsteps and what he did last year. He was who I wanted to be like and now (coach Jason Allen) said I could maybe be even better. That makes me feel like I can be better than I have told myself I can be. I am a better wrestler than what I feel like I am."
Sisco, a 2017 graduate, went 1-2 at state at 170 last year.
Branson enters state at 37-8. He qualified with a 6-4 overtime win over Coffman's James Baumann and then defeated Dresden Tri-Valley's Sky Wisecarver 4-0 in the third-place match.
Central scored 28.5 points at district to finish 22nd behind champion and OCC-Ohio rival Lancaster (170) as 38 teams scored.
Also competing but failing to advance were Trevor Mangahas (113, 2-2), Marcus Zullo (145, 2-2), Silas Pearson (170, 1-2), Noah Dotson (132, 0-2), Grant Meek (195, 0-2) and Grey Brancifort (220, 0-2).
Boys basketball team advances to semifinal
The boys basketball team sought to complete a three-game season sweep of OCC-Ohio rival Gahanna in a Division I district semifinal March 7.
Ninth-seeded Central entered the game at 14-8, coming off a 66-50 win over 22nd-seeded Walnut Ridge in a second-round home game March 2. Adrian Nelson had 18 points to lead the Tigers, who also got 13 points from Juan Elmore, 12 from Coleton Landis and 11 from Josiah Fulcher.
Gahanna was seeded seventh in the district.
The winner plays fourth-seeded Westerville North or 30th-seeded Canal Winchester in a district final Saturday, March 10, at Ohio Dominican. The district champion advances to a regional semifinal March 15 at Ohio Dominican.
Bowling season ends at district
Junior Evan Tailford of the boys bowling team rolled a 524 three-game series in the Division I district tournament March 3 at HP Lanes, but Central's season came to an end when it finished 10th (3,349) behind champion Westerville Central (3,907) as 16 teams scored.
The top three teams and top three individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to the state tournament Friday, March 9, at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Tailford placed 27th of 105 individuals. Also scoring for the Tigers were juniors Ethan Fisher (38th, 497) and Zach Dewey (tied for 39th, 495) and seniors Jaret Negron (78th, 301), Justin Sutherland (79th, 299), Logan Gray (89th, 189) and Ryan Smith (103rd, 119).
That ended a season in which Central went 9-4 overall, 8-3 in the Central Ohio High School Bowling Conference-B to finish third behind champion Pickerington North (11-0) and 4-2 in the OCC-Central to tie Marysville and North for second behind Gahanna (6-0).
Fisher led the Tigers with a 184.7 game average, followed by Sutherland (167.6), Dewey (165.3) and Negron (156.6).
With an underclassman-laden lineup, the girls team went 5-8 overall, 4-7 in the COHSBC-B to place eighth behind champion Darby (11-0) and 2-3 in the OCC-Central to finish fourth behind champion Gahanna (6-0).
Sophomore Kate Merkel led Central with a 137.5 average, ahead of classmates Frankie Moore (106.7), Kiara Kozak (102.6) and Kathy Burgess (97.6).
The girls' season ended with a 32nd-place finish (3,207) in the 37-team sectional Feb. 24 at HP Lanes behind champion Gahanna (3,642).
@ThisWeekDaveAt a glance
*Record: Boys -- 9-4 overall, 8-3 (third) in COHSBC-B, 4-2 (tied for second) in OCC-Central; Girls -- 5-8 overall, 4-7 (eighth) in COHSBC-B, 2-3 (fourth) in OCC-Central
*Seniors lost: Boys -- Zach Dewey, Jaret Negron, Ryan Smith and Justin Sutherland; Girls -- None
*Key returnees: Boys -- Ethan Fisher and Evan Tailford; Girls -- Kathy Burgess, Kiara Kozak, Kate Merkel and Frankie Moore