DAYTON, Ohio -- Pickerington Central made their first night stay at University of Dayton Arena a strictly business matter as they handily defeated Lakewood St. Edward 74-42 in the state Division I semifinal. After the Tigers had a slow start and trailed 9-2 in the first three minutes, Central head coach Eric Krueger called timeout, made notable substitutions and would go on a 72-33 run as the Tigers completely overwhelmed one of Ohio's most notable programs.
Central applied the lethal combination of superior depth and a tenacious defensive effort that held an otherwise strong shooting Eagles team to 2-of-25 shooting from beyond three and only one scorer in double digits, senior Michael Bova who finished with 10 points.
Meanwhile the Tigers received a balanced, versatile scoring effort as 12 players recorded a point, led by the junior trio of Devin Royal, Markell Johnson and Rasheem Biles as they finished with 19, 13 and 12 respectively. Central had an excellent night beyond the arc, going 5-of-10 and having more than twice as many assists as the Eagles.
"We have multiple spark plugs," reclassified senior Sonny Styles said after the game. "We really focus on team defense. There's no drop off with (our depth) at all. If anything, it gives us more energy."
That type of energy was quickly felt and was apparent that it took St. Edward out of their comfort zone.
"They were big, they were physical," Eagles coach Eric Flannery said. "What separates them and makes them special is I thought they were really good defensively. They cut off driving lanes, gave us nothing easy at the rim. But we missed a lot of shots too."
Bova, an All-Ohio honoree and Bellarmine signee, also credited the Tigers and their physicality as he was held to nearly less than 10 points from his scoring average. "With me not being able to get to the hoop and not being able to get others involved, it was very frustrating," Bova said.
The Tigers exhibited the type of complete, selfless team effort that earns state championships. Royal was again fantastic and for the third straight high-level game, appeared to get wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The top 100 2023 recruit, who earned an offer from Florida State after his dominant performance over Gahanna, put in another performance worthy of attracting another high major offer. The six-foot-six forward added seven rebounds and four assists on top of his game high 19 points.
Styles continued his all-around dominant tournament run. The future Ohio State hybrid safety/linebacker, who continues to receive a bulk of attention from opposing fan bases, finished with nine points, eight rebounds and four assists. With this weekend being his final moment of his high school career, Krueger has noticed an even more determined Styles.
"His sense of urgency has been up another level, especially this tournament," Krueger said. "Once he reclassified, he took on a much bigger leadership role for us."
Krueger received significant roles from his bench, mainly in Biles and Johnson who combined for 25 points, 10 rebounds and five steals. Biles, who has a significant number of Division I offers for football, looked the bit of a Division I basketball prospect on Saturday. The versatile six-foot-three athletic guard was a two-way menace as he finished with three assists along with five-of-six shooting from the field. What made his performance all the more impressive is he's coming off a broken pelvic bone injury that questioned whether he'd be able to compete in the tournament at all.
Johnson did a particularly solid job of defending Bova and continued his hot shooting stretch as he was five-of-seven from the field and perfect on both of his three point attempts. Senior Josh Harlan finished with seven points.
The total team effort has allowed the Tigers to play by far their best basketball of the season at the right time as they've won their last two games by a combined 49 points. With front end talent such as Royal and Styles, along with elevated, accepted roles from every other player, Central has a strong belief they can win their first state championship since 2012.
"It's a great feeling, but we know we have to get the job done, we got one more to go," Styles said.
They'll play the winner of Centerville and Cleveland St. Ignatius. The Elks are the strong favorite, as they hold an undefeated streak that lasts almost two entire seasons. The Tigers played Centerville last season in a 11 point defeat. While the Elks are mostly the similar, top level team from last year's championship run, the Tigers themselves are much improved.
They'll face off Sunday at University of Dayton Arena at 8:30 p.m.
Danny Lavelle 2 pts, reb, ast Wendell Henry 2 pts, 2 reb, ast Brock Danahey 4 pts Bryan Flannery 2 pts