Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis regularly calls his team, especially sophomore contributors Jae'Sean Tate, Connor Kern and Javon Bess, his "babies."

Pickerington High School Central boys basketball coach Jerry Francis regularly calls his team, especially sophomore contributors Jae'Sean Tate, Connor Kern and Javon Bess, his "babies."

In almost the same breath March 24, he noted they logged enough minutes this season to be considered juniors. In any case, the roles they played guiding the Tigers to the program's first state championship made them look like veterans.

Tate missed a dunk with a minute to play in the Division I state final, but Bess grabbed the rebound, lobbed the ball to Tate over 6-foot-8, 265-pound Toledo Whitmer center Chris Wormley and Tate finished with a layup to give the Tigers a five-point lead en route to a 45-40 victory at Ohio State.

"We tried to run that (play in a 60-45 state semifinal victory March 23 over Fairfield) a couple times," Tate said. "We weren't looking to force shots. We wanted to take time and get the easiest shot."

Central was playing in its first state tournament after winning its first district championship since 2002 and first league title since 2004.

"I'm just happy. I'm very, very happy," Tate said. "This is my dream. It's come true."

Caris LeVert supplied a game-high 20 points and Tate scored 10 for Central, which finished 26-2. Taco Charlton contributed six points and six rebounds.

Whitmer has been to state four times (2012, 2008, 1987 and 1931) and still is without a title.

"We just came up a little short against a tremendous basketball team," Panthers coach Bruce Smith said. "Tate got some baskets that if we'd have had more pressure down low, maybe he wouldn't have gotten them. They're just a little bit bigger inside. (LeVert) was probably the difference-maker. He's so tough to defend."

Because of the one-day turnaround between the state semifinal and final, all the Tigers had seen of Whitmer was the Panthers' 62-51 semifinal victory over Lakewood St. Edward.

Whitmer scored the first five points against Central, and the game 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.

They trailed only once after that at 37-36 with about five minutes left.

"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 Le-Vert, 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, which finished 24-3.

Against Fairfield, Tate scored 16 points with 13 rebounds and LeVert added 13 points.

The state title was the culmination of a season that started with tremendous promise. Central won its first 14 games - a streak that included a 93-91 overtime win at Grove City on Jan. 6 and LeVert's 30-foot winning shot that gave the Tigers a 73-70 victory at Delaware on Dec. 28.

The Tigers were ranked fourth in the state when they hit their only slump, losing 66-65 to Cleveland St. Ignatius on Jan. 29 and 51-35 at Newark on Feb. 7. The latter loss was the Tigers' only setback in OCC-Ohio Division play. They clinched the league title six nights later with a 74-42 win over Lancaster.

Central went 13-1 in the league to finish ahead of Newark (11-3), Gahanna (8-6), Grove City (8-6), Pickerington North (7-7), Reynoldsburg (7-7), Lancaster (2-12) and Groveport (0-14).

Central rarely was threatened in the district tournament, winning four games by an average of 25 points and defeating Newark 65-49 in the final.In the regional round, the Tigers beat Olentangy Liberty 60-58 and Canton McKinley 60-51 to advance to state.

The Tigers lose three seniors in LeVert, who has signed with Ohio University, and guards Chad Nelson and Zach Beaver. Expected to return are sophomores Bess, Kern and Tate and junior forwards Charlton and Darryl LeVert.

Caris LeVert averaged a team-best 22 points, followed by Tate (12), Kern (12) and Nelson (eight).

LeVert was Player of the Year in the OCC-Ohio, first-team all-district and second-team all-state. Tate and Charlton were second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district, and Kern was honorable mention all-district.

Nelson was honorable mention all-league.

"It's just a great opportunity. I hope we can come back (to state) next year and the next year and the next year," Tate said. "Coach Francis wanted us to be the Jacques Cousteaus. He wanted us to start the legacy."

Francis hopes the state title launches a new era for the Tigers.

"We don't rest on our laurels. We want to lay down the foundation of Tiger basketball and continue to improve," he said. "We want to develop the grass roots and keep winning, baby."