DAYTON, Ohio -- No team in Ohio played as impressive basketball the last two seasons than the Centerville Elks. Yet over the last three weeks, no team in the state has played as dominant and connected as the Pickerington Central Tigers. On Sunday night, the Tigers proved they were ultimately the team to beat as they out battled the Elks in an intense 55-48 win to clinch the Division I State Championship.
In front of a packed crowd at University of Dayton Arena, where more than half of the reported 8,561 in attendance appeared to be in support for the nearby Elks, the Tigers took an early lead in the first quarter, held off multiple Centerville runs and ultimately utilized their star power in junior Devin Royal and favorable depth to end the defending state champions 45-game win streak.
In a night filled with stars and future high major college recruits from both teams, Royal was the best player on the court. The 6-foot-6 forward led all scorers with 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting. It's become an expected outcome where Royal simply is able to convert whatever he wants, whenever he wants around the rim and not even the nationally ranked Elks could slow him down.
"We didn't feel like underdogs, to be honest," Royal said. "We love having the fans here in this type of environment, the added adversity." Teammate and longtime friend Sonny Styles, who played in his last high school competition as he will enroll at Ohio State for football this summer, echoed a similar mindset.
"We knew how tough they were, but we felt like they had to beat us," Styles said.
Styles led a cast of Tigers players that all stood up and executed their roles to near perfection on the biggest stage. Playing with an added urgency of a dwindling high school career, Styles capped off his basketball career with an all-around dominant run. On Sunday, he led the Tigers with six assists and eight rebounds. He scored all four of his points in the fourth quarter, which proved crucial to hold off Centerville's final punch.
Styles sense of urgency was matched by the only other senior who saw playing time for the Tigers, guard Josh Harlan who delivered the type of mature, well-rounded two way performance that he should always be able to reflect upon. Harlan finished with 11 points and hardly subbed out of the game, as his perimeter defensive skills were a factor in limiting the Elks' guards.
While the Tigers saw seven different players score, it was their team defensive effort that took Centerville out of their rhythm and gave a lack of usual confidence. The Elks shot 6-of-23 from beyond the arc and shot under 40% total from the field. Junior guard and Indiana commit Gabe Cupps was just 1-of-5 from deep, while fellow star teammates in seniors Rich Rolf and Tom House went 2-of-6 and 2-of-8 from three, respectively.
"We had a goal to contest as many shots as we could and I thought we did a good job of that," coach Eric Krueger said, who won his first state championship after coming up short in the state semifinals in 2017 and 2018. It was a confidence in his team's defense that he saw from the way his team carried themselves throughout the weekend that gave him a hint Sunday night could be special.
"I can't really put my finger on it, but just throughout the day and the weekend, I just saw a certain confidence from the team," Krueger said. "We've just been playing at a high level lately, let's just keep doing what we're doing."
While Pickerington Central certainly impressed throughout the year towards their number one overall seed in the district tournament, injuries began to mount near the end of the regular season, which limited their depth and explosiveness.
"We honestly weren't fully healthy until the round against Delaware Hayes," Krueger said. "But once we got [Rasheem] Biles back, Sonny and Dev started to heal, the whole unit really started to buy back in and play together."
It was the type of buy-in that would at times let Krueger go nine deep into his roster and consistently throw mismatches at opponents. Against Centerville, Biles provided instant offense with four straight points in his first action off the bench. Junior Andrew Hedgepeth scored all five of his points in the third quarter, while junior Gavin Headings had six points and three rebounds. Sophomore Juwan Turner finished with five points, as he made three crucial free throws in the final minute.
"At the beginning of the year, there was just a buy-in from everyone, it went beyond basketball, it went beyond x's-and-o's," Krueger said. "It's about being connected, believing in each other."
The belief was strong as the Tigers had a joyous celebration with each other after the final buzzer. While Harlan and Styles move on, this marks the end of a run for a group of players that have played together since elementary school.
"A lot of us, we've been playing together since the fourth grade," Styles said. "It's a great feeling, there's a lot of love for these guys."
Although they lose a floor general in Harlan and a unicorn of an athlete in Styles, the Tigers return a significant amount of talent that should make them favorites to repeat as champions.
Royal has now delivered a string of tournament performances that should warrant attention from every high major program in the country as he made a solid argument to be recognized as the top 2023 prospect in the state. The cast of Biles, Headings, Turner, Hedgepeth and Markell Johnson signal a return of significant talent and experience for the Tigers.
But for players like Royal and the rest of his teammates, they're deserving of an opportunity to reflect and show pride in what a Pickerington Central team hasn't been able to accomplish in a decade, despite fielding some top level teams.
"With this being the 10 year anniversary of our only state championship, it means a lot to bring this one home to Pickerington," Royal said.
The Tigers not only bring a title back to Pickerington, but are also the first Division I Central Ohio team to win the state tournament since 2016. After ending Centerville's storied run, the 2021-2022 Tigers should be remembered as one of the area's all-time best.