COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Pressure busts pipes. That same pressure can also build diamonds. For Pickerington Central, it's ring season for the Tigers.
Using a dominant 11-2 run to end Saturday's Division I regional final against Hilliard Bradley (25-2), Pickerington Central (18-8) advanced to its second-straight state final four in an emphatic 43-39 victory.
Trailing 37-32 with 4:22 remaining, Pickerington Central looked to be dead in the water against a Hilliard Bradley team that was accustomed to grinding games out late in the fourth quarter. This Pickerington Central group isn't most teams, however.
A driving score from sophomore guard Josiah Fulcher cut the deficit to 37-34 with four minutes remaining. In what ended up being the game of his life, junior center Coleton Landis responded moments later.
Pulling up for a three at the top of the key, Landis proved the bank was still open, as his attempt hit off glass and fell into the rim, tying Saturday's regional final at 37 with 3:03 to go.
In a game that Bradley controlled for most of the way, the Jags never led again. On its next possession, Bradley missed a deep three, as Central's Javohn Garcia, who has been the hero of the Tigers' tournament run, took a long rebound and went coast-to-coast for two.
Goaltending was called on Garcia's layup attempt, which put the Tigers up 39-37 with 2:25 to go.
As its high pressure defense helped the Tigers get back into the game, Central forced another tough look from the Jags, corralling the rebound with a 39-37 lead and 1:48 remaining.
Attempting to run clock, Central turned it over, as Bradley senior Isaiah Speelman and junior Zach Hummel had Fulcher on a two-on-one break. Coming in from behind for a major steal, Central senior guard Juan Woods made the defensive play of his career with a little more than a minute to go. Getting back on transition defense, Woods hustled from behind, intercepting Speelman's pass and providing the Tigers with possession on a crucial steal.
Scoring at the rim on the other end, Fulcher put the Tigers ahead 41-37 with a minute remaining. On the other end, Bradley had trouble scoring inside, as Landis blocked two shot attempts inside, stifling any attempt for the Jags to get a big momentum bucket.
The hero of the final 30 seconds, Central senior wing Adrian Nelson forced a tough shot attempt and eventual turnover from Bradley senior guard Braden Norris, as the Tigers took over possession with 28.7 seconds to play.
Sending Garcia to the line with 23.2 seconds remaining, the Tigers had a chance to ice Saturday's game with a one-and-one attempt at the stripe. Garcia missed the front end, as Bradley freshman Jack Pugh scored on the left block to cut the deficit to 41-39 with 10.2 seconds to go.
Going to the line for the biggest free throws of his career, Nelson calmly knocked down both attempts of a one-and-one, putting the final nail in Bradley's coffin at 43-39.
Landis stepped up big time for the Tigers, providing 12 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. The 6-foot-7 junior had a big first half, helping the Tigers spark a 7-0 run in the final 4:38 of the second quarter. Landis' presence on the glass and in the paint, mixed with stellar finishing ability on Saturday, were the difference for Central against a team that prides itself on "out toughing" opponents.
The star of the district and regional tournament, Garcia added 11 points, four assists and three blocks. Able to knife to the rim and finish in the slow-down game, Garcia made a major impact on both ends of the floor. Taking over the keys to this Central team with star point guard Jeremiah Francis out for the season, Garcia has made as big of a rise as any junior in Central Ohio.
In a primetime matchup against fellow sophomore guard Matt Allocco of Hilliard Bradley, Fulcher had the upper hand, especially late, adding eight points in the second half alone. Fulcher's ability to use his quickness and length at the rim was key for the Tigers, as his final back-breaking bucket put Central ahead 41-37 with a minute to play.
While his minutes may have been limited, Central junior guard Jaidon Lipscomb made them count down the stretch. After an Allocco three-point play put Bradley up 32-24 with 7:48 remaining, it seemed as if the Jags were destined to move on to its first-ever state tournament.
Knocking down a three only 42 seconds later, Lipscomb cut the deficit to 32-27. Speelman struck back, as a three from the Cedarville signee put Bradley back up eight with 6:40 remaining. From the exact same spot as his last triple, Lipscomb buried another one, giving Central renewed confidence and belief at 35-30.
Lipscomb's triples, coupled with four-straight ensuing points from Fulcher powered the Central rally in the final frame.
Nelson added four points, none two bigger than his free throws with eight seconds to go. The Detroit Mercy signee added eight rebounds and two blocks, making the biggest difference on defense and on the glass. More than anything, Nelson's leadership as one of few seniors on this Tigers team has been the biggest part of his development and Central's winning streak.
Surviving a fourth quarter that had all the makings of a classic, Pickerington Central moves on to its second-straight final four to take on Solon (26-1). In what will be its fifth-straight game as the lower seeded team, Pickerington Central will again wear the purple jerseys that have been the trademark of this run.
For Hilliard Bradley, a remarkable season ends in heartbreak. Converting on just one offensive possession in the final four minutes and change, the Jags fall one game short of The Schott.
The program's all-time leading scorer Speelman led the way with 17 points. Scoring 11 of Bradley's 22 points after halftime, Speelman did nearly enough to power the Jags to the final four. The Cedarville signee hit a huge three to end the third quarter that put Bradley up 29-24 going into the final frame.
Allocco added seven points and four assists, scoring a few tough buckets near the rim, but struggled to stretch the floor with three-point shooting. Knocking down just three triples as a team on the afternoon, Bradley had a non-characteristic shooting performance against a lengthy and athletic Central defense that pushed them off the three-point line.
The senior Norris, who is as responsible as anyone for the great turnaround of the Bradley program, finished with five points and five assists in his final game in a Jaguar uniform. Pugh stepped up big time in his time on the floor, adding four points and three steals in limited minutes.
No other Bradley player scored more than two points, as Hummel added a team-high nine rebounds. In a game won in the trenches, Bradley was out-rebounded 25-19 by the Tigers, a stat that ultimately signaled its demise.
Winning 87 games in the last four years, Bradley's seniors left a major mark on the Jaguar program, changing the culture and establishing a winning tradition. Returning several key players including sophomores Allocco and Chris Mayfield, along with Pugh, look for Bradley to continue its dominance of the OCC-Cardinal, while having a chance to compete for another district title.