In a non-league doubleheader featuring four state-ranked teams, stars shined and lessons were learned as the postseason tournaments draw nearer.
Columbus, OH – Fans came out to Africentric Field House in droves Saturday for a girls/boys basketball doubleheader featuring four tradition-rich, state-ranked teams with an eye toward playing deep into March. This non-league card was scheduled for that very purpose…and, of course, to showcase a handful of prized college prospects.
“We’re about putting up banners, and that’s why we put together the toughest schedule in the state, according to MaxPreps.com,” said Pickerington Central first-year girls coach Chris Wallace. “We try to make them fail a bit to toughen them up for the immediate and long-reach future. We’re not afraid to lose some games to achieve that.”
Regarded as one of four state-ranked Division I area powers – Reynoldsburg, Dublin Coffman and Newark being the others – Pickerington Central improved to 13-6 with a convincing 50-38 win over Africentric, which is ranked No. 8 in Division III.
Central’s resume now includes wins over third-ranked Coffman and fifth-ranked Cincinnati Princeton, a split with No. 12 Newark, a loss to No. 1 Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame and two losses to No. 2 Reynoldsburg. The Tigers also have played five highly-regarded out-of-state opponents.
This game was all about fine-tuning and confidence-building for the Tigers, who are seeking a seventh consecutive Central District title.
Juniors Madison Greene and Olivia Cooper scored 15 points each and sophomore Berry Wallace 14 to pace Central, which broke open a close game in the second half. Wallace converted back-to-back three-point plays to close the first half, and midway through the fourth quarter the taller Tigers went to a 1-3-1 zone defense that completely befuddled the Nubians.
“We have a very versatile team that can spread you out, especially off the dribble,” said Wallace, a six-year assistant who took over when Johnathan Hedgepeth stepped down to take a role as assistant coach. “We’ve got 6-foot-1 kids (Wallace and Cooper) who can step out on the floor and cause some real mismatches. As for the 1-3-1, well, we’re typically a man team but we wanted to show it and work on it in case we need it somewhere down the road.”
Central has won seven state championships and three runner-ups in 13 final four appearances, the majority of which came before the Pickerington district split into two schools, Central and North.
Africentric’s dynasty is even more impressive. Since the school’s opening in 2003-04, Africentric owns seven state titles and two runner-ups in 11 final four appearances. The founder of the program, Will McKinney, also stepped down to take an assistant role, while mentoring 10-year assistant Janicia Anderson.
Kamryn Grant and Aries Grant scored 14 points each for the Nubians (14-4), who came having outscored opponents by an average margin of, 61-25. Ten of the 12 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores. Three of Africentric’s defeats have come to Division I teams.
The main attraction of the nightcap was a head-to-head matchup between Dailyn Swain of Africentric and Devin Royal of Pickerington Central. The versatile and fast-rising 6-foot-7 small forwards own scholarship offers from a combined 31 college programs. Ohio State has offered both.
Central’s size and athleticism proved to be too much to handle in an 86-54 rout of smaller, outmatched Africentric.
While Swain and Royal did not guard one another, they provided some highlight-reel dunks and blocked shots. So did junior Alex “Sonny” Styles, a five-star football prospect who has committed to Ohio State as a safety and is an exceptional basketball player in his own right.
Perhaps stealing the show, however, was 6-8 Tigers’ sophomore Gavin Headings, who scored 12 of his game-high 20 points in the first quarter as Central raced to a big lead and never looked back.
“Gavin is kind of an ‘X’ factor for us,” Central coach Eric Krueger said. “When he’s playing like that, it only makes us more dangerous and more balanced. He’s averaging about nine (points) a game so this was a real breakout for him on a big stage. We ran a few sets early in the game and to his credit, Gavin took advantage of a few mismatches.”
Styles added 16 points and Royal for 15 for Central (15-1), which came in rated second behind defending champion Centerville in the state poll. Like their female counterparts, the Tigers have played an ambitious schedule, boasting quality wins over Gahanna, Akron Buchtel, Pickerington North, Mentor, Cincinnati Taft and Garfield Heights, while avenging their only defeat to Newark.
“I think we’ve played the best schedule in the area, if not the state,” Krueger said. “It’s been one big game right after another for us and that can only help us further down the road. It’s a really, really cohesive, connected group on and off the court. We’re extremely versatile offensively and defensively, with Sonny being our big defensive stopper. He always draws our opponent’s top player and tonight it was Swain.”
Swain had 18 points to pace Africentric (14-4), which is seventh-ranked in Division III. In putting themselves in prime position to win the City League South title, the Nubians have beaten the likes of Dublin Coffman and Dayton Oakwood, while losing to larger programs such as Hilliard Bradley, Huber Heights Wayne and West Virginia power, Huntington.
“We didn’t compete to the level we can compete to tonight and that really disappoints me,” Africentric coach Michael Bates said. “In order for us to accomplish our goals, we need top win games or least compete better against teams of this caliber. Pickerington Central was really physical with us and we didn’t respond. They’re a super-athletic team and when we got down, we quit fighting and we can’t ever let that happen again.”
All in all, though, Bates said the Saturday blowout should prove helpful against less potent teams in the tournament.
“That’s why I schedule games like this,” he said. “Like the old saying goes, ‘Iron sharpens iron.’ What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
Africentric’s Preston Steele goes to the basket against Central’s Gavin Headings.