GAHANNA, Ohio -- With the opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the OCC Ohio race, Friday night's duel between Gahanna and Pickerington North pitted conference foes that had a combined 18-3 record and both with a statement to prove, albeit for different reasons.
Led behind another all-star performance by senior Sean Jones, who continues to add a compelling case for Mr. Ohio by the game, the Lions ultimately showed they weren't bound to let recent losses derail their quest to be the top seeded area team as they defeated the Panthers 53-42. The loss for Pickerington North halted their six-game winning streak and their 42 point total was by far their lowest scoring output of the season, as they had averaged over 65 points through ten games.
It wasn't the smoothest of starts for either team, even for Gahanna who took a 14-9 lead after the first quarter. Jones was an exception, as he gave early indications he was bound for a stellar performance and scored eight points, perfect on his three field goal attempts and one free throw. Yet he, along with backcourt mate Eljae Deas, were both called for two fouls that forced the Lions to be without their top two ball handlers.
The Panthers, who by all means are currently comprised by a collection of hybrid athletic guards, would use their combination of strong perimeter defensive abilities along with their assertive drive towards the rim to cut Gahanna's lead to 20-17 at half.
Beyond Jones' 13 first-half points and the clearly advantaged post play from Gahanna forward Javan Simmons, the Lions first half looked to again show similar turnover issues that plagued them in their recent losses to Pickerington Central and Akron St. Vincent-St.Mary.
Yet the Lions responded in the second half resembling more the team that won their first eight games, all by double digits.
"In the second quarter, we faced some adversity, had lots of fouls," Gahanna coach Tony Staib said. "But we responded well in stretches, we moved the ball much better. We continued to defend well."
On back-to-back possessions midway through the third, Gahanna's defense forced two steals which led to consecutive breakaway baskets and would push the Lions lead to ten. North senior Jerry Saunders helped creep the Panthers back into a single digit deficit, but Jones delivered a devastating blow at the end of the third on a pull-up three as time expired.
Despite a bit of an offensive burst from the Panthers, who didn't hit a three-pointer until freshman Arness Lawson connected from the corner early in the fourth, the Lions would find offense of their own and showed excellent poise from the charity stripe as they went 12 of 14 as the Lions and would secure their tenth double-digit victory.
The strong second-half Lions response looked the part of a composed, senior led team. It was no surprise from their leader, Jones, who was just two points shy of his season-high 29 points and contributed three assists and three steals.
"There's a lot of trust on this team," Jones, the Marquette commit, said. "Even when I was on the bench [with first half fouls], my teammates were uplifting me."
Jones' mature performance spoke for itself and signaled an on-court leadership that can give Lions fans confidence for a promising stretch towards the second half of the season.
After the disappointing home defeat to Central six days prior, Jones said the Lions had immediate urgency after the game to learn from the loss.
"We want to get better from our losses," Jones said. "Use them as teaching moments, watch as much film as we can, make it a new season today."
The collected nature of his all state guard is no surprise to Staib.
"There's not too many guys In this program that have played as many games as [Jones] has, have had as many moments he has," Staib said. "He stays so composed."
Equal in composure was the fantastic play of fellow senior Simmons, a Toledo commit. The six-foot-seven forward had at least a four inch advantage over any North player. He used the difference to his benefit, as he grabbed five rebounds and made two large swats. Defensively, North would often double or triple team him in the post and did a decent job to limit his scoring production to seven points. Yet Simmons would counter with fantastic kicks from the paint to co-lead the Lions with three assists.
"Javan played like a point guard out of the post tonight," Staib said. "He's a tremendous passer."
Further scoring production came in the form of fives, as seniors Deas, Cam Johnson and Brendan Raymond each finished with five points, while senior Josh Whiteside had four.
Despite the loss, North showed a balanced effort and although it's a lineup of all guards, each player seems to offer a different role.
Seniors Dior Conners and Saunders led the way with their 13 and 15 points, respectively. Both guards were aggressive in attacking the rim and also combined for five steals.
The freshman Lawson finished with eight points and looked very much comfortable competing on a court filled with talented seniors and showed a shooting stroke that suggests he may be one of the more pure scorers for Panthers coach Jason Bates.
Junior Jeff Amapps finished with two points, but was the game's most explosive player as he led the Panthers with five rebounds and three blocks. At six-foot-three, Amapps has a strong build and an even more impressive vertical that has him play much bigger than his height. Senior Corey Hudson finished with four points.
The Panthers (9-2, 4-1) have no time to dwell on their defeat as they have a quick turnaround and play Huber Heights Wayne Saturday at Flyin' To The Hoop.
Gahanna (10-2, 5-0) will also make the trip to Dayton for Flyin' To The Hoop, but not until Sunday when they face Brush, a team that's consider a contender to represent the Cleveland region at the state tournament.
For the Lions, a strong contender to represent the Columbus region, they'll hope this won't be their last trip to the Dayton area this season.