PICKERINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) — Pickerington Central’s boys basketball state championship a year ago snapped two streaks — a 10-year title drought and Centerville’s 45-game win streak.
The Tigers beat the defending state champion Elks 55-48 behind Devin Royal’s 20 points. Royal and Pickerington Central will face Centerville again in a semifinal at University of Dayton Arena at 5:15 p.m. Saturday. But it’s not the first time these teams are playing each other this season. The Tigers lost 60-54 in double overtime on Dec. 17 in the Play-by-Play Classic.
“When we played Centerville at Nationwide Arena, we had 20 turnovers the first time,” junior Juwan Turner said. “I feel like our guard play stepped up from that moment. Coming into this game, we should be ready.”
Royal, an Ohio State commit, was named Ohio Mr. Basketball on Wednesday, becoming the 12th future Buckeye to win the award. He’s playing his best basketball down the stretch, scoring 57 points combined in the central Ohio regional tournament to put the Tigers back in the state Final Four.
“It means a lot just how we’ve all progressed throughout the season, got better and better each day at practice and just helped each other out,” Royal said. “It means a lot growing up with these guys and knowing how we play just helps us a lot.”
Pickerington Central’s backcourt includes sharpshooters in seniors Andrew Hedgepath and Markell Johnson, who could be the difference in the semifinal.
“It’s going to take all five people on the floor,” Johnson said. “They’re pretty good at what they do, so it’s going to be a challenge but defensively, if we come together, I think we can do it.”
The Tigers will have their hands full on defense, starting with Centerville senior and Indiana commit Gabe Cupps, who won Ohio Mr. Basketball last year and was the runner-up this year. But this Elks team has more than just Cupps. Junior Jonathan Powell has offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Indiana, senior Emmanuel Deng is a 2023 Penn State football commit and 6-foot-8 center Tommy Gankhuyag is a force in the lane.
“They have the best point guard in the state [Cupps] and arguably the best wing in the state [Powell] and with the big kid down low. … He’s really physical, really talented as well,” Pickerington Central coach Eric Krueger said. “Across the board, there’s a lot of challenges they present [that] we’ll have to work really hard on our end to prepare for.”
Another aspect to prepare for is figuring out how to win the game if Royal isn’t able to score near 30 points like he has in the past few games.
“Devin really hasn’t forced things at any point. He’s unselfish, he’s willing to pass, willing to trust his teammates, so we’ll just continue to encourage our guys to be ready if they do send a double [team] his way to be ready, to step up and make plays,” Krueger said. “I think the guys around Devin are capable of doing that.”
Those role players also include sophomore Amare Spiva, 6-8 senior forward Gavin Headings and 6-5 center Robert Keuchler. The latter two will be tasked with guarding Centerville’s big man.