COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Pickerington Central shuts down Gahanna to book a trip to Dayton after beating the Lions, 59-42.
After their first meeting ended with a 58-53 Tiger win, this game was set up to be an all-time great. Tickets sold out within twenty minutes and Alumni Hall was filled up an hour before tip-off. The stage was set for the regional championship and the game did not disappoint.
Devin Royal started things off with a dunk plus a foul to get the Tiger fans rockings early. This inside score would be indicative of how this game would be played. On the next possession, Royal drew a charge on Javan Simmons which would send Simmons to the bench with two fouls after only a minute and a half of action. Sean Jones darted into the paint with a quick crossover for two and got Gahanna on the board. Gavin Headings then hit a layup off a nice pass from Josh Harlan. The tough guard Harlan then drew a charge on Jones to give the ball back to Central. Gahanna moved into a 2-3 zone after the hot Central start which slowed down the Tiger offense for some time. Eljae Deas then scored off a baseline drive to tie the game at five. The two Gahanna bigs then scored five straight points with a Simmons three and two Josh Whiteside free throws. Markell Johnson answered with a three to close the quarter and give Central a 10-8 lead.
Both Gahanna bigs had two fouls early in the second quarter after Whiteside was called for an illegal screen. Royal hit a fallaway two followed by a transition pull-up to give him four straight points. Whiteside then picked up his third foul on a reach-in which sent him to the bench for the remaining three minutes of the half. The Gahanna zone really slowed the pace of the game. Royal operated at the free-throw line to try and beat the Lion zone as his ability to knock down mid-range jumpers was key. Gahanna would swarm Royal which opened up rim runs for other Tiger players. Central held the ball for the final 45 seconds but Gahanna played outstanding defense to close the half down 16-18. Royal had 13 of Central’s 18 first-half points. The Tigers did everything to get the ball out of Jones’ hands and make other Gahanna players beat them. The Lions shot 5/13 (38%) from the field in the first half but Central’s 7/21 (33%) shooting from the field kept Gahanna in the game.
The first half was back and forth all game with no team taking more than a five-point lead. Central, however, took control in the third quarter with their lockdown defense. They held Gahanna scoreless for the first four minutes of action. The Lions had chances to score but just missed tons of shots at the rim. After being out for a couple weeks, junior Rasheem Biles was back in action tonight. He got a steal and went coast to coast for an and one which electrified the building. This capped off an 8-0 Central run to open the second half. Their defense lead to quick scores on the other end and Gahanna was forced to call a timeout. Simmons scored the first points for Gahanna at the 3:46 mark of the third quarter with a backdoor cut for a dunk. This sparked some momentum for the Lions as they forced a backcourt violation followed by a Jones’ corner three. Jones’ then scored an old fashioned three-point play in transition to cap off an 8-0 run by Gahanna. The momentum was shifted back in favor of the Lions as the third quarter ended with a 31-24 Central lead.
Markell Johnson drained a three after a Gahanna defensive breakdown left him wide open. Royal then hit a layup to force a Gahanna timeout as the Lions trailed by 14 with 6:24 left to play. Cameron Johnson then hit back-to-back threes to pull Gahanna within seven points. Headings hit a midrange jumper followed by a Juwan Turner corner triple to restore Central’s 11 point lead. Sonny Styles jumped a passing lane and threw down a dunk to put the Tigers up 14 with 3:30 left in the game. Pick Central then was able to play keep-away to force Gahanna to foul. They were able to get away from double teams and run down the clock. Styles then ended the game with an empathic throw down to add insult to injury and beat Gahanna 59-42.
The plan for Pick Central was to make anyone other than Sean Jones score and get the ball inside. Jones was swarmed any time he drove into the paint but still was able to finish with 15 points.
Devin Royal led all scorers with 20 points and got his buckets in all possible ways. Sonny Styles added eight points but impacted the game in so many other different ways. He had 12 rebounds, four blocks, three steals, and a few assists. Sophomore, Juwan Turner had 7 and senior Josh Harlan had 4. Markell Johnson had 8 big points off the bench.
This group of Gahanna seniors ends a storied three year run where they won the OCC all three seasons and finished with a record of 71-8. The Lions, led by Jones, fall in the regional final for the second year in a row. Gahanna loses all five starters to graduation and will have an entirely new roster next season when they return to the floor.
For Pickerington Central, the Tigers return to the state tournament for the third time since 2017. This group has a more connected culture than its previous teams, with a roster full of football players that have dominated the area with elite unselfishness and teamwork. Head coach Eric Krueger, who won his sixth district title and third regional title since taking over the reigns in 2014, will return home to his native Dayton to hopefully lead the Tigers to their first state title since 2012.
The Tigers state title team in 2012 featured two NBA players in Jae’Sean Tate and Caris LeVert. The interesting part about the 2022 Central rendition is that the Tigers have their most star power since that state championship team. It’ll be interesting to see if Royal, Styles and company can power Central to its first state title in 10 years. We truly believe they have as good a shot as anyone to take home all the marbles next week in Dayton.
Pickerington Central’s run to the state title will resume on Saturday against Lakewood St. Edward at UD Arena.