After yet another lopsided win earned the Pickerington High School Central girls basketball team its second consecutive Division I regional championship March 8 at Otterbein, coach Johnathan Hedgepeth deflected credit down the bench to assistant coach Chris Wallace.
"We held them to 39 points," Hedgepeth said after a 66-39 win over Reynoldsburg in the regional final. "We owe it to (Wallace). He calls all the defense."
Wallace, whose daughter, Bexley, helped lead the Tigers to last year's state championship and now plays at Penn State, said the key was being particularly effective at taking away Raiders forward Uju Ezeudu and high-percentage shots inside. Central did just that, holding Ezeudu to four points and one rebound in the first half in sprinting to a 10-2 lead just four minutes in and building a 36-16 advantage by halftime.
"We did a very good job of taking them out of what they wanted to do and making them uncomfortable," Wallace said. "We focused on taking away their inside presence first and make them beat us from the perimeter. That made a difference. We put huge ball pressure on them and made it difficult to get the ball inside to their post players. We switched things around with man-to-man and half-court and full-court trapping. We wore them down, too. We have a pretty deep team."
No matter the defense Central chooses to play, that has been a characteristic of the Tigers throughout another dominant season. Central is 27-1 and coming off its 13th regional championship entering a state semifinal at 8 p.m. Friday, March 15, at Ohio State against Toledo Notre Dame Academy.
Central trapped in the half court early in a regional semifinal March 5 against Westerville South and fell behind 10-2 before pressing and trapping led to a 25-1 run that blew the game open as the Tigers won 71-44.
"(Reynoldsburg) came out with a lot of energy, but one advantage we felt we had was our bench," Hedgepeth said. "They only played six kids or so the last time we saw them and we were hoping to get them tired and frustrated. But we executed well. We kept our composure."
Maliya Perry had 16 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals against Reynoldsburg to lead a balanced effort. Nicole Stephens had 12 points and Madison Greene added 11 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals as Central defeated the Raiders for the 10th time in their past 13 meetings.
"Nothing is guaranteed," Greene said. "Even though we've been ranked No. 1 in our conference and in the district and in the state, nothing is guaranteed. (Winning a regional title is) still an amazing feeling. I'm very proud of all the hard work everybody has put in. It just feels even better. Last year, we were a young team and we were expected to do that. Now, we don't have the bigs we used to have (6-foot-3 Wallace and 6-2 forward Kyla Whitehead, who now plays at Dayton) and I am not sure people expected us to do what we've done. But I'm proud of how far we've come."
Senior guard Jala Johnson, the Northwest District Player of the Year, hit a jump shot with 2.4 seconds left to cap a 6-0 run in the final minute and lift Notre Dame Academy past Canton McKinley in a regional final March 9 at Norwalk. Johnson averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists during the regular season for the Eagles, who are 23-5.
Another key player for the Eagles is Grace VanSlooten, a 6-2 freshman forward who averaged 12.2 points and 8.2 rebounds during the regular season.
The Central-Notre Dame Academy winner will play Canton GlenOak (24-2) or Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame (25-2) in the state championship game at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16, at Ohio State. Mount Notre Dame has won six state titles, the last coming in 2017.
The Tigers are trying to become the first repeat champions in Division I since Twinsburg in 2011 and 2012.
"These girls know what our goals are from day one. It's four things - OCC (-Ohio Division), district, regional and state (championships)," Hedgepeth said. "This feels unbelievable because of how tough it is to achieve this. Not many people go back-to-back or even have the chance to do it. The chance to do this, it's an awesome feeling."