Despite a relative lack of varsity experience, the Pickerington High School North boys basketball team won a share of its second consecutive OCC-Ohio Division championship and its second district title in three seasons, setting a program record for wins in the process.
Coach Jason Bates pointed to that same lack of experience on the big stage in discussing a 64-58 loss to Olentangy Liberty in a Division I regional final March 16 at Ohio Dominican. The Panthers led 27-25 at halftime, but fell behind early in the third quarter and never led again, although they hung close until the final minutes.
North hurt its chances by missing seven of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter and fell short of its first regional championship.
"At the end of the day, these are a lot of guys who have not been in this position (and have been) in new roles," Bates said. "We put ourselves in a position to win. I am proud of them, without a doubt. (Liberty) is a team that belongs at the state tournament and to bang with them like that and have control of our own destiny, we can walk out of here with our heads held up."
Junior guard Chris Scott had a game-high 23 points and sophomore forward Jack Sawyer added 18 points, but just five in the second half, as North finished 23-5 overall.
Ben Roderick, who was named Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year on March 15, scored 20 points to lead the Patriots, who improved to 24-4 and advanced to their first state tournament. Henry Hinkle added 14 points and Nick Nakasian scored 13.
Liberty began the third quarter on a 10-3 run and the fourth on a 14-6 spurt.
"We were getting good shots (in the first half), we just weren't making them," Roderick said.
"We just told ourselves we had to keep running our offense and we'd get easy shots. We ended up doing that and that's how we pulled this out. We knew we hadn't played our first half very well, but we were only down two (points). It was amazing to pull this out the way we did."
The loss snapped North's 11-game winning streak dating to a 75-64 loss to Liberty on Jan. 26 in the Jared Sullinger Ohio Scholastic Play-by-Play Classic at Pickerington Central.
Twenty-eight points from junior guard Hunter Shedenhelm, 23 of which came in the second half, powered the Panthers past Newark 61-46 in a regional semifinal March 13. Sawyer added 12 points and Scott scored 10.
Sawyer, an Ohio State football commit, averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds and was named first-team all-league and all-district. Shedenhelm averaged 10.8 points and earned first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district honors, and Scott averaged 9.9 points and was second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior guard Jaylon Baylor, who will play football at Wheeling Jesuit, was honorable mention all-league.
North went 9-1 in the OCC-Ohio to tie Central for the league championship.
Senior forward Adrien Clarke is the only starter who will be lost to graduation.
Other players eligible to return include sophomores Omari Effiong (guard), Casey George (guard) and Idris Lawrence (forward) and freshman Jerry Saunders (guard).
"There are some big-time players in our locker room and the great thing about that is a lot of them will be here next year," Bates said. "This year, the mantra was using last year. We lost in a district semifinal. Next year, I told them the mantra will be this regional final and trying to get to state, finally get over the hump. For these juniors and sophomores to play in key moments like this, the experience is priceless.
"They grew by leaps and bounds. This was by far my most coachable team. They were all on the same page. When they do that, that allows for the growth. They should always remember this year and always be proud."