GAHANNA, Ohio -- When the schedules were released preseason, just about every Central Ohio hoops fan had the midseason duel between Pickerington Central and Gahanna circled on their calendar.
In front of a sold-out gym, both teams stars delivered, while other role players stepped up in crucial moments, but ultimately Pickerington Central prevailed and defeated Gahanna 58-53 on Saturday night.
The Tigers made an initial statement in the first quarter as Sonny Styles led a Pickerington defensive effort to strip the Lions multiple times, creating an array of turnovers and fast-break opportunities. The future Ohio State football recruit showed off his blue-chip defensive abilities as he disrupted the Lions towards six points and three steals in the first quarter as the Tigers took a 13-4 lead.
Gahanna found some offensive life in the second, led by senior Sean Jones, but with a major contribution from senior Cam Johnson who scored eight straight Lions points, including two triples. Jones would ultimately help swing momentum through a thunderous breakaway dunk and then capped it with a half-court heave at the buzzer to bring the Lions within a one-point 24-23 deficit at half.
Gahanna would continue the momentum into the third, as Jones and Johnson added more scoring contributions, but also received production from senior and Toledo commit Javan Simmons and Brendan Raymond whose second three-pointer of the third quarter gave Gahanna their first lead of the game. Jones would also hit three straight mid-range attempts as the Lions took a 40-38 lead into the final period.
Enter Devin Royal. The talented 6-foot-7 wing forward had a productive and efficient first three quarters, scoring nine points and not forcing anything. Yet in the fourth, Royal began to take matters into his own hands as he attacked the rim and helped create offense from participating in a total team defensive effort.
The Lions began to have similar issues that gave them their first loss last Sunday against Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary. Pickerington's defensive efforts created havoc on the Lions ball handlers, with repeated turnovers midway through the fourth.
Pickerington Central looked to be in position to close out the game after Gavin Headings, who had a fantastic game and finished with 12 points, made a corner three-point attempt to extend the Tigers lead to nine, but was quickly responded by Simmons' second triple of the evening.
After the Tigers missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity, Gahanna responded again with a three-pointer from Jones to cut the Tigers lead to 56-53 and 23 seconds on the clock. Yet the Lions couldn't capitalize and the Tigers would cap the evening from a Royal dunk, his 19th point of the game, to bury the Lions 58-53 at home.
Royal was simply spectacular, especially in the second half. The junior wing never seemed to let his composure waiver, even when he didn't receive as many offensive touches early in the game. Royal showed off a versatile offensive display, but was also a major clog in the Pickerington defense and at times was switched against the 5-foot-11 Jones and did a good job of staying in front of the speedy guard.
"With how special [Sean Jones] is, we needed Devin to be just as special," Tigers head coach Eric Krueger said. "We tried to get him the ball more in the second half and he was great."
So great that Royal received an offer directly after the game from Virginia Tech, who was in attendance for the game along with Marquette head coach Shaka Smart, who has offered Royal as well.
Royal wasn't the only spectacular performer for the Tigers. Junior Rasheem Biles had perhaps his best game of his career, scoring 10 momentous points off the bench, which seemed to always come after a Gahanna score to halt any run for the Lions.
Headings also had perhaps one of his better games, as he made multiple three point attempts and showed off a growing confidence that previews the type of potential the junior has.
"Gavin is gaining confidence each practice, each game," Krueger said. "He really has been shooting the ball better and better."
Styles finished with eight points and Markell Johnson had six points off two three-pointers. Senior Josh Harlan, an experienced three-year varsity player, had only two points but was a major impact on the defensive end. Sophomore Juwan Turner added three assists.
Even in defeat, Jones was marvelous for Gahanna. The senior guard made bold shot after shot towards an 18 point, five rebound and four assist effort. Simmons finished with 13 points, while Johnson had 10.
There's no denying the crowd at Gahanna got their money's worth in a game that felt like a preview of a regional championship. Once the buzzer hit, the celebration of the Tigers team and their traveling student section signaled a win that felt it meant a little more. For Royal, he couldn't help but feel beating Gahanna was different than any other win.
"It was personal, very personal," Royal said win a grin.
While a rematch may not take place until March, both teams have work to continue before the tournament begins.
Gahanna (9-2), who has last two out of their last three, host a challenging foe in Pickerington North next Friday.
Pickerington Central (9-1) hopes to carry momentum next Friday as well when they host Reynoldsburg.
For more on the top performers from Saturday's game, see Zach Fleer's Prospect Scouting Report below.
Devin Royal (6’7 dual forward / Pickerington Central / 2023): Royal stamped himself as arguably the best player in the area tonight. That is no knock to Sean Jones, either. Royal just belongs in the conversation. The 6-foot-7 dual forward took over the fourth quarter, going for 10 of his 19 points with a barrage of above the rim finishes. In Central’s toughest games this year, Royal has not shied away from the pressure and has been someone the Tigers can consistently rely on in tight situations. The junior is a physical matchup nightmare with his size, strength and athleticism, as there is not another wing in the area who can match up with him physically. Against a Gahanna team with an imposing front line, Royal showed the ability to finish on the interior, however, his biggest impact was in transition where he runs the floor like a guard and dunks everything. Royal looks the part of a high-major combo forward, as he was offered by Virginia Tech following his performance. When you have the best player on the floor in the biggest games, you have an enormous advantage and Central has that when Royal suits up for them.
Sean Jones (5’11 PG / Gahanna Lincoln / 2022): The senior Jones is no stranger to big games. He has played in many of them. Whether the district final against Walnut Ridge his sophomore year or last year’s all-time classic regional final versus Westerville Central, Jones has experience in raucous, high-level environments. Unfortunately Saturday’s game ended like the aforementioned two, with Jones starring but Gahanna falling short. The 5-foot-11 guard is one of the greatest competitors that we have ever covered and the most talented point guard we have evaluated. Nobody has Jones’ mix of speed, quickness and explosion, as he handles the basketball much like Barry Sanders used to run the football. Jones was a force to be reckoned with for Gahanna Lincoln, as he finished with 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals. The senior hit a major bank three from half court to end the first half, seemingly proving a point that he was not going away lightly. The Marquette signee has a great feel for the game, as high of an IQ as you will find at the point guard spot and athletic gifts that are not found in 99 percent of players at his position. The great ones deserve to go out on top, and for Jones’ sake, we hope that he can come out on the winning side of one of these all-time classic type games. He deserves it, as he has had an incredible career and has been a joy to cover.
Gavin Headings (6’8 stretch big / Pickerington Central / 2023): For as good as Royal was, Headings might have been better. The 6-foot-8 junior proved he belonged among the elite of the elite, putting together his best game of his career to help lead the Tigers to the massive victory. Headings has imposing size and is a massive matchup problem, as he can put the ball on the floor, is a very skilled post player and stretches the floor with his high release jumper that is extremely hard to contest. Headings just looks the part of a modern day big, as he has a gangly frame, broad shoulders and enjoy athleticism to play above the rim. The thing that was separating Headings from playing to his absolute potential was toughness and he certainly answered the bell in that department. You cannot produce in championship level environments if you are not mentally and physically tough and Headings proved on Saturday that he is indeed tough in the biggest game of the year. The 6-foot-8 junior was a force in the second half and showed the ability to impact the game at a high level on both ends. If Saturday’s performance was a sign of things to come for Headings and the Tigers, Pickerington Central has a lot to look forward to this year.
Rasheem Biles (6’2 SF / Pickerington Central / 2023): Great teams have depth and role players that rise to the occasion when most needed. Biles was the best player off the bench in Saturday’s game, as his two-way impact was hard to ignore. Finishing with 10 points, Biles was an athletic force both with his stout perimeter defense and finishing ability at the rim. The 6-foot-2 junior is an absolute game wrecking defensive back on the gridiron and showed that same toughness against an elite Gahanna team. Biles provides a major boost of energy and confidence when he hits the floor, as 99 percent of high school teams do not have an athlete like him on their bench. Pickerington Central is a factory for Power 5 football players and Biles is the next one in line, however, he is an impactful high school basketball player that produced when it mattered most on Saturday.
Javan Simmons (6’6 hybrid big / Gahanna Lincoln / 2022): It was not what happened during the game, but what happened after the game that impressed us the most about Simmons. While every other player on his team likely sulked in the locker room before heading home, Simmons came back out onto the floor 20 minutes after the final buzzer sounded, still dressed in full uniform. The Toledo signee proceeded to shoot free throws, do form shooting and the Mikan drill for more than 40 minutes before the livestream link on YouTube shut off. As of this writing, he may still be out there, putting in unseen (but seen) work that will no doubt be an important moment for him. The 6-foot-6 senior had a strong showing on Saturday, scoring 13 points and pulling down four rebounds. He provided Gahanna with vital floor spacing, knocking down two threes and dominating in stretches on the interior. Simmons is a physical presence on the interior and has greatly improved his perimeter skills where he is now a legitimate threat. Jones and Simmons carry a lot on their shoulders for this Lions team, as they combined for 31 on Saturday and all but two of the Lions’ 13 points in the fourth quarter.
Cameron Johnson (6’3 SG / Gahanna Lincoln / 2022): Gahanna would not have been in a position to win Saturday’s game if it weren’t for the timely play of Johnson. With Pickerington Central taking a 13-4 lead after a quarter of play, Johnson woke up in the second quarter and scored eight important points to help Gahanna close the gap to a point. The senior is a quality role player that is the fifth and final starter on this team. As we saw with Westerville South in their 2016 state title run, role players need to step up in order to win big and Johnson answered the bell in that department on Saturday. It takes every member on the roster to win at a high level and if Johnson can play at the level he did on Saturday consistently, this Gahanna team will be in better shape to accomplish what they’ve set out for. Johnson is a total team player, carries a 4.2 GPA and would be a great addition to any college program looking for an unselfish player who will flourish at the next level.