For the first time since 2017, the Pickerington Central girls basketball team left Otterbein's Rike Center looking forward to next season instead of the state tournament.
Despite hot shooting early and a 60-foot, game-tying heave to end the third quarter that sent a buzz through the crowd, the Tigers could not overcome foul trouble against balanced Newark in a Division I regional final March 6.
Senior guard Nicole Stephens' team-high 23 points, including the basket that tied the game at 45 heading to the fourth quarter, ultimately were not enough in a 70-54 loss that denied Central its third consecutive regional championship.
The Wildcats ended the game on a 22-6 run and made 16 of 17 free throws in the fourth quarter against a Central team playing without junior forward Jocelyn Tate and freshman guard Madison Greene, both of whom had been key to the defensive effort but fouled out.
Gabby Stare scored 14 of her game-high 26 points in the last 4 minutes, 40 seconds of the first half and also had eight rebounds. Emma Shumate added 19 points and seven rebounds and Gwen Stare had 18 points for the Wildcats, who won their first regional title since 2017.
"Gabby Stare brought them back singlehandedly and then we got into foul trouble early, which hurt what we wanted to do," Tigers coach Johnathan Hedgepeth said. "With Jocelyn and Madison getting into foul trouble, it messed up some of our (defensive) plans and really hurt our momentum. We have a great bench, but it's a difference when two of our best defenders are sitting on the bench."
Felesia Ondongo added 12 points for Central, which finished 22-6 overall. Her 3-pointer early in the second quarter gave the Tigers their biggest lead at 22-12.
Central also had lost to Newark 66-48 on Feb. 8 in the final regular-season game for both teams.
"They played a lot more man-to-man defensively ... and early, they shot it extremely well," Newark coach J.R. Shumate said. "We were gambling more early; we were trapping and changing defenses some and it just wasn't a great decision. We gave them a lot of open shots. In the second half, we settled in and played more man-to-man defense (and) were solid on defense instead of gambling."
Tate's 15 points and 11 rebounds led Central to a 62-56 win over OCC-Ohio Division rival Reynoldsburg in a regional semifinal March 3 at Otterbein. Junior guard Skye Williams added 15 points and 11 rebounds, Ondongo had 11 points and Greene scored 10.
"The pressure when we've played in the (state semifinals) and the state championships, we're used to it, so with the electricity, we aren't nervous," Tate said after the regional semifinal. "We've grown as a team all year."
Stephens, a Columbia recruit, averaged 14.8 points and earned first-team all-league and first-team all-district honors. Tate averaged 6.3 points and was first-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Senior guard Aarionna Redman, a Marshall recruit whose season ended Jan. 31 against Reynoldsburg because of a torn ACL, averaged 9.0 points and was second-team all-league, along with Ondongo (7.6 points).
Greene was honorable mention all-league.
Central went 9-1 in the OCC-Ohio to share the championship with Gahanna.
Redman's injury led to more playing time for Williams, who returned around the same time after missing eight months because of a left ankle injury, as well as other younger players such as sophomore guard Kyah Ewing and freshman forward Olivia Cooper.
"It shrunk our bench from what we wanted moving forward," Hedgepeth said. "Losing a senior is huge, too. We got a lot of younger girls playing time and that will benefit us moving forward, but we still weren't quite what we wanted to be."
Branson advances to state in wrestling
Senior Bo Branson of the wrestling team will try to finish his career on a high note when he competes in his second Division I state tournament, which runs Friday, March 13, through Sunday, March 15, at Ohio State.
Branson finished fourth at 126 pounds in the district tournament that concluded March 7 at Hilliard Darby, going 3-2 and losing to Westland's Bryson Palmer 10-6 in the third-place match. Branson qualified for state by defeating Groveport's Muhamad Conteh 3-1 in a consolation semifinal. The top four finishers in each weight class advanced to state.
Branson, who is 36-9 this season, went 0-2 at state as a sophomore and was a state alternate last year but did not compete.
Central finished 20th (27) at district behind champion Dublin Coffman (174.5) as 40 teams scored.
Also competing but failing to advance were Marcus Zullo (152, fifth, 4-2) and Garrett Meek (heavyweight, 0-2). Zullo is a state alternate.
Boys team falls in district semi
The boys basketball team fell short of a Division I district final for the first time since 2015, as it trailed 18th-seeded Delaware for most of a semifinal March 4 at Worthington Christian Middle School and fell to the Pacers 57-45.
Senior guard Tahleik Walker had 10 points and junior forward Garner Wallace scored nine for the fourth-seeded Tigers, who finished 18-7 overall. Central fell behind late in the first quarter, trailing 12-9 heading to the second, and did not lead again.
The Tigers were seeking their eighth district championship in nine years and were appearing in a district semifinal for the 10th consecutive season.
"Delaware shot the ball well and we didn't play as well as we'd have liked to play on our end," coach Eric Krueger said. "All it takes is one night when you don't play well and the other team is hot and things can go south. We played well, but we just couldn't get going offensively or get enough stops defensively."
Senior guard Conner Maciag averaged 13.8 points and was named second-team all-OCC-Ohio and honorable mention all-district. Wallace, who played all but one game after helping the football team to the Division I state championship, averaged 13.5 points to earn first-team all-league and third-team all-district honors.
Walker added 11.3 points and was named second-team all-league and honorable mention all-district.
Junior forward Elhadji Thiam was honorable mention all-league.
Several other underclassmen who saw considerable playing time are eligible to return, including sophomore Josh Harlan (guard) and freshmen Devin Royal (forward) and Sonny Styles (forward).
Central went 7-3 in the OCC-Ohio to finish third behind champion Gahanna (9-1).
Bowlers to return key underclassmen
The boys bowling team will be losing its top three scorers, including Division I district qualifier Drew Bookman, to graduation, while three of the girls team's top five scorers are eligible to return.
Senior Kate Merkel tied for 23rd (462 three-game series) of 108 bowlers to lead the girls team to 11th place (2,800) in the 16-team district tournament Feb. 29 at HP Lanes, behind champion Westerville Central (3,599).
The top four teams and top four individuals not on qualifying teams advanced to state March 7 at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
Sophomore Jaycie Arnet led the Tigers with a 154.9 average, ahead of Merkel (150.9), freshman Alexis Tulius (144.8), senior Kathy Burgess (135.5) and freshman Emily Stickel (132.1). Central went 8-4 overall and in the COHSBC-B and 3-2 in the OCC-Central.
Also scoring at district were Arnet (60th, 400), Burgess (66th, 384), Stickel (80th, 289) and Tulius (85th, 238).
Bookman, a Siena Heights football recruit, averaged 183.1 to lead the boys team and finished 38th (521) of 109 bowlers at district to fall short of a state berth.
Seniors Grant Gilkey and Christian Kirton averaged 176.2 and 167.8, respectively, as the Tigers went 5-8 overall, 4-8 in the COHSBC-B and 1-4 in the OCC-Central.
Freshman Alex Bookman (167.7) is eligible to return, as are three other boys bowlers who saw limited time this season in junior Zach Walker and freshmen Jared Baden and Brandon Bradley.