Mike DeLeon entered the season with a target on his back.

Mike DeLeon entered the season with a target on his back.

The 6-foot-6 senior post player was the leading scorer and rebounder last season for the Olentangy Liberty High School boys basketball team, which finished 23-2 overall, won the OCC-Central Division title and reached a Division I district final.

This season, DeLeon is the lone returning starter, and opponents have taken notice.

"If you're the lone starter back from a 22-win team and you were the top scorer and rebounder from that team, it comes with the territory," coach Greg Nossaman said of DeLeon, who averaged 12.8 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists last season and was honorable mention all-district and first-team all-league. "This year is a change. He's the guy who scores and he had a better supporting cast last season. There wasn't a go-to guy last year. They would pass the ball around and find the open guy to shoot. Anyone could have been that guy.

"Mike always has been crafty around the basket, but he's able to work to get open now. He is drawing double-teams and that has opened things up for Zach (Nice) and we're able to work the ball inside and out."

DeLeon was averaging 17.3 points and 8.0 rebounds before the Patriots played Marysville on Jan. 29. He also was shooting 63.4 percent (128-for-202) from the floor.

"I have to be more of a leader this year," said DeLeon, whose team was 9-7 overall before playing Marysville. "I didn't have to say much last year because the seniors knew what was going on. Now I have to make sure we are all on the same page."

The Patriots lost to Upper Arlington 36-34 on Jan. 24 to fall into a second-place tie in the OCC-Central. Entering the week, UA led the league at 7-1, with Dublin Coffman and Liberty at 7-2.

DeLeon had 14 points and 11 rebounds against the Golden Bears. Brad Smith had six points, and Law Jones and Nice added five apiece.

"I think one of the biggest things is that we can struggle to score. Zach has really picked things up and is hitting shots," DeLeon said. "Our defense has been good. (Four) of our last (five) opponents (before Jan. 29) have been held to (42) points or fewer and the one was when we beat Central Crossing (77-52 on Jan. 17) in a high-scoring game."

In late December, Liberty traveled to the Orlando, Fla., area for a KSA tournament at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. Facing top-level teams in the event, the Patriots went 0-3, losing to Johnson City (Tenn.) Science Hill 78-60 on Dec. 27, Coral Gables (Fla.) 63-53 on Dec. 28 and Lake Forest (Calif.) El Toro 66-57 on Dec. 29.

The Patriots learned some valuable lessons, according to DeLeon.

"It was a great time going to Florida, but we played the teams in the top bracket. It was tough, but we still should have won a game or two," he said. "We found out that we weren't as good as we were last year. The teams we played were huge and we kind of froze up. We were 4-4 after coming back from Florida, so we knew we had to come back and work harder."

DeLeon knows he will have to work harder to excel at the next level. He signed in November to play at Ohio Dominican University.

"I need to work on my shooting, mostly on the pull-up jumper," said DeLeon, who has a 3.95 GPA and plans to major in a business-related field. "You need to have a jump shot off of the dribble at the next level."

"When he goes to college, Mike will have to improve on his outside shooting," Nossaman said. "He can shoot the 3, but he has to be more consistent with that."

Gundling's 20 leadsBraves past Pioneers

Olentangy was 6-7 overall and 3-4 in the OCC-Capital before playing Franklin Heights on Jan. 29.

Jimmy Gundling scored 20 points to lead the Braves past Orange 65-36 on Jan. 24 in league play. Matt Forsythe had nine points, Ryan Sieve had eight, Seth O'Neal scored seven and Obi Anunike added five.

Olentangy was to play Mount Vernon at home Jan. 25, but the league game was rescheduled for Saturday, Feb. 1, because of bad weather.

Hillard leads Orangein loss to Olentangy

Orange was 2-11 overall and 2-6 in the OCC-Capital before playing Mount Vernon on Jan. 29.

Taraji Hillard scored a career-high 10 points to lead the Pioneers in their loss to Olentangy. Dave Dawson had six points and Grant Gossard, Jay Joseph and Colin Shepherd added four apiece.