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Road to Regionals: Pickerington Central holds off Westerville South

By Greg Glasser, 03/09/23, 10:00PM EST


Led behind Devin Royal's 28 points, Tigers now face Olentangy Orange

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Pickerington Central led the entire 32 minutes against Westerville South in the regional semifinal, but had to endure a relentless Wildcat effort through the final ten seconds. 

The Tigers took a double-digit lead early in the second quarter that ballooned up to 18 points towards the end of the third. Yet Westerville South entered the fourth and chipped away at Central's lead, possession by possession, that led to South senior Jadi Cunningham to connect on back-to-back And-1 finishes that trimmed the deficit to a three-point contest with under 40 seconds.  Despite a difficult night overall behind the foul line, where Central went 15-of-28 at the stripe, the Tigers made enough free throws in the final moments to seal a 59-51 victory.

Beyond the win, the sub-story of the evening was senior forward and Ohio State commit Devin Royal, who scored a game-high 28 points, which broke Jae'Sean Tate's school career scoring record of 1,461. On the day he was named a finalist for Mr. Ohio, Royal put on an award-winning performance that included two made threes and eight rebounds.

Yet similar to their state championship run in 2022, Royal was assisted by a complete effort from his teammates, as each Tiger that appeared made a significant contribution, most notably on the defensive end.

"We grinded defensively and it was just a gritty win for us overall," Tigers head coach Eric Krueger said. "Collectively, they all played solid. Our guys played their role."

While Royal took over a majority of scoring duties, he and the Tigers maximized their defensive duties against a South team that has a selection of playmakers. Central limited the Cats to just 5-of-20 shooting from beyond the arc and 32% field goal percentage overall.

"We were trying to get them off the 3-point line, they shoot really well from three," Krueger said. "We didn't want them to get comfortable and step into open threes." 

Westerville South head coach Ed Calo applauded his team's effort, but acknowledged it wasn't his team's best performance.

"We didn't have a good flow. I thought [Central] played hard defensively, but we were stagnant, a little shell shocked to start, it hurt us quite a bit," Calo said. 

Yet typical of a hard-nosed Calo coached team, the Cats had the mental DNA to not fold, even despite a near 20-point deficit in the second half. 

"We still believed, we're going to fight until the end," Calo said. "Our kids never gave up. They're a tough group. In that 3rd and 4th quarter, we still believed we could win that game."

Calo noted the all-out effort of his three seniors, Jadi Cunningham, Jujuan Ray and Jalen Wheeler, who were the three catalysts that sparked South's comeback effort in the final period. Cunningham finished with a team-high 16 points, while Ray added 14 and Wheeler scored all four of his points in the fourth.

"I'm really proud of our seniors. You want your last game to be as good as can be and I don't think they could have played any harder," Calo said. "Sure, we could have shot better, executed better, but not harder. I'm very pleased for what they've done for our program."

While Calo will graduate an accomplished group of seniors that includes two district titles, he received quality performances from a couple of sophomores that indicate South should once again compete for a third straight title next season. Kruz McClure finished with nine points, while Tyler Kielmeyer had eight as the duo both had five rebounds.

For Central, the only other player in double-digit scoring was junior Juwan Turner, who finished with ten points and a team-high three assists. Sophomore Amare Spiva and senior Markell Johnson exhausted fantastic energy and scored seven and six points, respectively.

The Tigers now shift their effort towards a second straight regional title as they continue their quest to repeat as state champions. They'll take on Olentangy Orange, as the Pioneers are playing for their first ever regional championship after an impressive 24-3 season.

The Pioneers are coached by Anthony Calo, son of Ed, and while Krueger didn't directly make the connection, he felt South's style helped prepare his team for their upcoming game against Orange.

"This game helped us stylistically, how they play, guard man-to-man and pressure," Krueger said. "I think they do some similar things, but we'll have our work cut off for us."

The Tigers and Pioneers will square off Saturday at 3pm at Ohio University.

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