Boys Basketball: Pickerington Central Tigers win second Division I state championship

In the week leading up to his team’s first Division I state tournament in four years, Pickerington Central boys basketball coach Eric Krueger noted this year’s Tigers bore little resemblance to the program’s previous three teams to advance that far.

“Devin Royal is an elite guy offensively but after that, we have a group of guys that really all pitch in,” Krueger said of the 6-foot-6 junior forward who has 17 college offers and led the team in scoring. “The versatility we have has been really important for us. Some of the groups we’ve had in the past, they’ve been more top-heavy with guys like Sterling Manley and Jeremiah Francis (both of whom played at North Carolina), guys like that.

“There are some similarities, though, because of the mentality and what we want to emphasize, how we want to play.”

This team made its mark in the form of an upset of last year’s state champions, giving Central its second title 10 years almost to the day after its first.

Royal, a first-team all-district honoree and OCC-Buckeye Division Player of the Year, scored 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half March 20, helping the Tigers fend off a late charge from defending champion and previously unbeaten Centerville and win 55-48 at University of Dayton Arena.

Senior point guard Josh Harlan added 11 points for Central, which shot 21-for-35 (60 percent) from the floor and held the Elks to 19-for-48 (39.6 percent). The Tigers led 33-22 midway through the third quarter, only to see Centerville finish the period on a 12-3 run and get within one point twice in the fourth.

Florida State recruit Tom House’s 3-pointer got the Elks within 48-46 with 90 seconds left, but Harlan, Royal and sophomore guard Juwan Turner went 7-for-8 at the free-throw line in the final minute to seal the outcome.

Central coach Eric Krueger hoists the Division I state championship trophy as his players celebrate their 55-48 win over Centerville on March 20 at University of Dayton Arena.

“I had to be aggressive,” Royal said. “We had to talk a lot, switch a lot and contest every shot. We knew they could shoot. We had to contest everything.”

Central routed Lakewood St. Edward 74-42 in a semifinal March 19. Royal had 19 points but the Tigers got a huge spark off the bench with 13 points from junior guard Markell Johnson and 12 from junior guard/forward Rasheem Biles.

“I’m proud of everybody because everybody played their role,” junior forward Gavin Headings said. “We were locked in and that showed (in the final). So many guys contributed. It’s special.”

Central was at state for the fourth time. The Tigers, who won the title in 2012 and lost in semifinals in 2017 and 2018, won their eighth district championship in 11 seasons.

Central junior Devin Royal cuts down the net after the state title victory. A first-team all-district honoree and OCC-Buckeye Player of the Year, Royal scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half of the championship game.

Royal averaged 19.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists. Junior forward Sonny Styles, an Ohio State football recruit who reclassified to graduate this spring, averaged 9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds to earn first-team all-league and third-team all-district.

Harlan was special mention all-league and Headings (8.5 points, 4.7 rebounds) was honorable mention all-league and all-district.

Turner averaged 6.2 points, 1.8 assists and 1.7 rebounds.

The Tigers' Sonny Styles puts up a shot in the state championship game. He averaged 9.0 points and 7.5 rebounds and is graduating a year early to begin his football career at Ohio State.

Krueger often was quick to note during the postseason that the Tigers did not cruise through the season unscathed.

Styles missed almost a month from late January through much of February because of an ankle injury, and Royal sat out the Tigers’ second tournament game for precautionary reasons.

Biles was feared out for the season because of a broken pelvic bone suffered in early February but returned for a 59-42 win over Gahanna in the regional final March 12 at Ohio Dominican.

“It’s work ethic and how they carry themselves and coach on the floor,” Krueger said. “We had a district semifinal against Delaware (on March 2) and that was the first time our entire starting lineup had been together in over a month due to injuries. Once we got more practices and games under our belt, our chemistry offensively continued to jell and as a group, we kept coming together.”

dpurpura@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekDave

Central senior Nick Buoni reaches out for the Tigers' Amare Spiva as the team rushes over to the student section to celebrate its state championship.

CENTRAL BOYS BASKETBALL

•Record: 26-2 overall

•OCC-Buckeye standings: Pickerington Central (8-2), Newark (7-3), Reynoldsburg (6-4), Groveport (5-5), Lancaster (3-7), Central Crossing (1-9)

•Seniors lost: Josh Harlan, Drew Osler, Jaden Richmond, Sonny Styles and Isoni Taylor

•Key returnees: Rasheem Biles, Gavin Headings, Devin Royal and Juwan Turner

•Postseason: Def. Westland 71-23; def. Columbus West 72-22; def. Delaware 63-47; def. Olentangy Liberty 54-49; def. Upper Arlington 53-40; def. Gahanna 59-42; def. Lakewood St. Edward 74-42; def. Centerville 55-48 in Division I state final