Thanks to words from one of his mentors, Pickerington Central girls basketball coach Johnathan Hedgepeth swore he wouldn't lose sleep if this year's Tigers might not be exactly where their predecessors were at this point in previous seasons.
As long as the Tigers continue another deep postseason run, Hedgepeth won't be picky about how it happens.
A 43-40 win over second-seeded Watterson in a Division I district final Feb. 29 at the Greater Columbus Convention Center gave Central its fifth district championship in a row and put the Tigers within two wins of a third consecutive state tournament.
Seeded fifth, Central seemed poised to pull away with a 26-18 lead late in the third quarter, but Watterson reeled off an 8-1 run to end the period and briefly led by one point early in the fourth before the Tigers surged back ahead and never trailed again.
Central improved to 21-5 and played OCC-Ohio Division rival Reynoldsburg in a regional semifinal March 3 at Otterbein.
"Everything we tried to execute, they made it tough," Hedgepeth said of Watterson, which finished 23-3. "We had a lot of problems defensively. They fought over screens well so our screens were never effective. They just played us tough and we missed a lot of layups as well. We have to get better at that. That's a credit to them because they made every shot tough with their ball screens.
"I was told by one of my predecessors that sometimes you're going to win and you have to squeak one out and win ugly. I don't think we're where we normally should be at this point, but we won and that's all it takes."
That predecessor was Mike Sewell, Central's longtime band director with whom Hedgepeth coached seventh-grade boys basketball several years ago. One of their players was Caris LeVert, who helped the Tigers' boys team to the Division I state championship in 2012 and now plays for the NBA's Brooklyn Nets.
Sewell died in 2017.
Central averaged 45.5 points in their two wins last week, the first being a 48-34 victory over 17th-seeded Dublin Scioto in a district semifinal Feb. 26 at Central Crossing.
Against Watterson, Jocelyn Tate had 10 points, Skye Williams scored nine and Madison Greene and Nicole Stephens each added eight.
After the Eagles took a 29-28 lead, Greene scored four points in a row to put Central back ahead and had a 3-pointer with 2 minutes, 21 seconds left to make it 36-34.
Stephens added two layups down the stretch and the Tigers went 6-for-9 from the foul line to seal the win.
"I don't know if we knew we'd struggle that much, but that game was hard," Stephens said. "They hedged their screens really high and it was hard to get off the screen, so we decided to run the off-screen and Madison and Skye ended up with the ball a lot."
Williams, who missed more than eight months because of a left ankle injury, has seen considerably more playing time -- as have Olivia Cooper and Kyah Ewing - since guard/forward Aarionna Redman was lost for the season Jan. 31 with a torn right ACL.
"I had to get into better conditioning, relearn the plays, relearn the defense and just get back into the feel of the game," Williams said. "It had been eight months since I played. I love coming back and embracing the process. This is a blessing. This (district championship) is one of the things we've been working toward."
Against Scioto, Stephens had a game-high 19 points and Felesia Ondongo added 12 as the Tigers led 24-7 after a quarter and 34-20 at halftime.
The Central-Reynoldsburg winner will play Gahanna or Newark in the regional final Friday, March 6, at Otterbein, with the regional champion advancing to a state semifinal March 13 at St. John Arena.
Gahanna and Newark were the only two in-state teams to defeat Central during the regular season, as the Tigers lost 68-63 to the Lions on Jan. 10 and 66-48 to the Wildcats on Feb. 8.
Central defeated Gahanna 61-56 on Jan. 3.
"(A district championship) means a lot knowing what Central basketball meant to Ohio (with six championships from 1985-99)," Stephens said. "Putting this team back on the map means a lot to us."
Boys team reaches district semifinal
The fourth-seeded boys basketball team took a 15-point first-quarter lead and pulled away to a 72-40 victory over visiting and 37th-seeded Licking Heights in the second round of the Division I district tournament Feb. 28.
Conner Maciag had 19 points, Garner Wallace added 14 and Sonny Styles scored 12 to lead the Tigers, who were 18-6 before playing 18th-seeded Delaware in a district semifinal March 4.
Central opened the postseason Feb. 22 with a 76-48 home win over 42nd-seeded Mount Vernon behind a game-high 23 points from Maciag and 17 from Tahleik Walker.
The Central-Delaware winner will play third-seeded Columbus South or 23rd-seeded Westerville Central in a district final Saturday, March 7, at Ohio Dominican. The district champion advances to a regional semifinal March 12.
The Tigers, who are seeking their fifth consecutive district title and eighth in nine seasons, defeated Westerville Central 54-51 on Jan. 21.