No matter how surprising it might have been that the Pickerington High School Central boys basketball team reached a Division I state semifinal, the Tigers proved they belonged March 23 when they led Solon - the top-ranked team in the final state poll - by 12 points on five occasions.
Senior forward Adrian Nelson hit his first nine shots from the field and Central pelted the Comets' press by shooting 16-for-23 from the floor in the first half, but once Solon was able to slow the game down, play half-court man-to-man defense and get first-team all-state guard Sincere Carry better looks, the Tigers' run came to an end.
Carry scored 21 of his 29 points in the second half to lead Solon to an 82-78 win, snapping Central's 11-game winning streak that began in late January.
"We wanted to contest as many shots as we could and make them make contested 3s," coach Eric Krueger said. "I know (Carry) wasn't named Mr. Basketball, but I think he was the best player we saw all year. He will penetrate and kick and get other guys involved, but he made some huge shots. You have to give them credit. We just couldn't get the stops to slow them down."
Nelson, a Detroit Mercy recruit, was shut out after a 21-point first half and took only three shots in the final two quarters as Central finished 18-9 overall. The Tigers were making their second consecutive state appearance and third since 2012.
"I was very efficient in the first half, so they definitely made a game plan of slowing me down," said Nelson, who also had a game-high nine rebounds. "I feel like if I would have scored more in the second half, we would have been more productive. As a senior, I had to step up more, but I just didn't produce in the second half."
Solon did not take its first lead until 6 minutes, 27 seconds remained in the fourth quarter and trailed only briefly after that.
David Marbury's 3-pointer with 2:39 left capped a possession on which Solon got three offensive rebounds and won a few 50-50 balls to make it 75-71. Central never got closer than four points again.
"Like coach always says, we go out with our brothers and play hard every day," said junior guard Javohn Garcia, who added 20 points. "We kept fighting. We didn't stop."
Central became the first public school to reach the state semifinals in boys basketball, girls basketball and football in the same school year. The only other school to accomplish that feat was Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary in 2013-14.
No school has ever won state championships in all of those sports in one school year.
The Irish won the Division III football title that year, and both of their basketball teams lost in state semifinals.
Central reached its second consecutive state tournament not only in spite of playing the entire season without junior point Jeremiah Francis, a North Carolina commit who underwent surgery on his left knee in December, but also being seeded ninth in the 48-team district tournament.
Francis warmed up with the team before its final five games but said after the Tigers defeated fourth-seeded Westerville North 59-57 in a district final March 10 at Ohio Dominican that it was extremely unlikely he would return this season.
Central went 8-2 in the OCC-Ohio Division to finish second behind Pickerington North (9-1) and ahead of Gahanna and Reynoldsburg (both 5-5), Grove City (3-7) and Lancaster (0-10).
In the district tournament, the Tigers had a first-round bye and defeated 22nd-seeded Walnut Ridge 66-50 in the second round March 2 and seventh-seeded Gahanna 51-41 in a semifinal March 7 before edging the Warriors to win their third consecutive district championship and sixth in seventh years.
In the regional tournament at Ohio Dominican, Central beat Dublin Coffman 58-38 in a semifinal March 15 and came from eight points down in the fourth quarter in the final March 19 to edge Hilliard Bradley 43-39.
Nelson averaged 13.9 points and 9.1 rebounds and was named first-team all-league and third-team all-district and Garcia (12.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.6 assists) was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Junior center/forward Coleton Landis (8.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists) was special mention all-league and sophomore guard Josiah Fulcher (9.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.6 assists) was honorable mention all-league.
Also among the Tigers' five seniors was forward Juan Elmore, who averaged 7.6 points and 3.7 rebounds.
"These seniors accomplished some very good things the last three years," Krueger said. "More than anything, it's always hard anytime your season ends. Even if you win the whole thing, you're going to miss everything about (a given) team."
@ThisWeekDaveAt a glance
*Record: 18-9 overall, 8-2 (second) in OCC-Ohio
*Seniors lost: Mehki Dean, Juan Elmore, Malachi Madison, Adrian Nelson and Juan Woods
*Key returnees: Jeremiah Francis, Josiah Fulcher, Javohn Garcia and Coleton Landis