DAYTON, Ohio -- Just about every Ohio hoops fan anticipated the state semifinal showdown between Centerville and Pickerington Central, the two previous Division I state champions, to come down to the wire. After all, the previous two meeting went to double overtime and almost a year ago, the Tigers edged the previously undefeated Elks in the 2022 state championship. For their third installment of the last year, Central and Centerville had three ties and exchanged the lead on seven occasions in the fourth quarter alone, until Central senior Markell Johnson gave the Tigers a lead for good with just under two seconds left via a running hook shot to secure a 57-53 victory.
The shot from Johnson came after he was called for a foul on a three-point attempt from Centerville star senior Gabe Cupps. The 2022 Mr. Ohio winner calmly sank all three to tie the game, which capped a sensational 22 point, 7 assist effort from the future Indiana Hoosier.
Central senior forward Devin Royal was then stripped on the next possession, but a quick foul call put Elk junior Baboucarr Njie at the line for a 1-and-1. He would miss the front end, which gave Pickerington Central possession for essentially the final 35 seconds which led to Johnson's winning shot in the final five.
"[Out of the timeout], we did draw it up like that," Pickerington Central head coach Eric Krueger said. "We wanted to throw it into Devin, but when that wasn't there, our second option was for Markell to go downhill with his left hand and make a play."
Just about everyone in the arena expected the Tigers to go through Royal, an Ohio State signee and the recipient of the 2023 Mr. Ohio awarded earlier this week. After all, Royal once again looked the part of the state's best player. The 6'6 versatile wing had a game-high 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting along with four rebounds. His most pivotal moment came under the four minute mark of the fourth when he connected on two straight and-one finishes, the first to tie the game and the ladder to give the Tigers a lead.
"I thought we did a decent job [on Devin]," Centerville head coach Brook Cupps, Gabe's father, said after the game. "But I wasn't happy on the late and-1's, those were things that should not have happened from our preparation."
"[Royal] is a great player, but what makes him really hard to guard are the guys around him," Brook said. "Honestly what we were trying to do was make him pass the ball and to his credit, he found some guys tonight."
Royal not only found his guys, but they made the most of their opportunities, most notably junior guard Juwan Turner. The 5'10 two-year starter scored 16 points and was a perfect 4-of-4 from deep. He added two assists, two steals and most importantly, zero turnovers.
"I was very excited to plays these guys, finally healthy", Turner said who battled an injury and an illness in his previous two meetings with the Elks. "I just worked hard all week to prepare for these guys."
Royal and Turner led the Tigers in scoring, but no bigger basket was made than Johnson's floater, his seventh point of the game, but an indication of the confidence the coaching staff and team had in him.
"Markell has come a long way, he's a lunch-pail kid that's worked extremely hard," Krueger said. "He's worked his way up from the freshman team to be a good player for us. I have a lot of confidence in Markell."
Most importantly, Johnson believed in himself as well.
"Ever since I was a little kid, you know, practicing game-winners in the driveway," Johnson said with a smile. "It felt natural, you just have to be confident in yourself."
Saturday's result may have marked the end of a sudden rivalry between the Elks and Tigers, as both teams have exchanged state titles and Mr. Ohio award-winners over the past two years with the past three contests that came down to the final minutes. With Cupps graduating, he leaves behind a legacy that includes three straight trips to the state tournament and a state title.
Meanwhile for Central, they still have an opportunity to further cement their legacy. The Tigers are now in back-to-back state title games and look to become the first Central Ohio Division I team to repeat as champions.
To do so, they'll have to beat the winner of Akron Hoban and Toledo St. John's Jesuit.
The state championship game will take place at UD Arena, Sunday at 8:30 p.m.