Bess' FTs lift Central over Whitmer in D1, 45-40

RUSTY MILLER AP Sports Writer Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- In the end, Pickerington Central had just enough -- plus a cranky coach -- to get an historic win.

Substitute guard Javon Bess hit nothing but net on two free throws with 9.1 seconds left to seal Central's first boys basketball state championship, a 45-40 victory over Toledo Whitmer in the Division I final on Saturday night.

Asked what it took to grab the win, coach Jerry Francis -- a former Ohio State player -- said his persistence paid off.

"It took a mean old man," he said with a smile. "I stay on those boys all the time."

Bess, who also hit another foul shot, scored all three of his points in the last 40 seconds.

Caris LeVert had 20 points and Jae'Sean Tate 10 for the Tigers (26-2), making their first appearance ever at the state's final four.

"We weren't scoring much in the third quarter," said LeVert, a second-team all-stater. "The coaches came to me and said, 'We need you to score.'"

Tate said Central just played the way it had all season.

"We only had a day to prepare," said Tate, the son of another former Ohio State player, Jermaine Tate. "We just came out and played Tiger basketball."

Leroy Alexander scored 19 points and Nigel Hayes added 15 for Whitmer (24-3), which was making its fourth trip to the state tournament, but has never won a title.

"We could talk about this play that happened or that play that didn't happen," Panthers coach Bruce Smith said. "We just came up a little short."

Central won thanks to a furious effort on defense. It forced 14 turnovers, from which it scored 19 points. At the same time, the Tigers had just five turnovers, which resulted in only nine points for the Panthers.

Whitmer, which hadn't led since a 7-6 edge late in the first quarter, regained the lead on a free throw by Hayes followed by a three-point play with 3:34 left, for a 37-36 lead.

LeVert countered with two foul shots at the 2:27 mark to retake the lead for Central.

The Tigers never relinquished it again.

"We did everything we could against (LeVert), but he still got his shot," Smith said. "(He) probably was the difference-maker."

Francis agreed.

"He made some big shots down the stretch," he said.

The Panthers then went inside to Hayes, a second-team Associated Press All-Ohio selection, but he was short with an 8-foot turnaround with just under 2 minutes remaining.

The Tigers took time off the clock before throwing a backdoor alley-oop pass from Bess to Jae'Sean Tate. Tate mishandled the pass while being closely defended, but got the loose ball and banked it in for a 40-37 lead with 1:13 left.

Whitmer misfired on its next two shots from the field and each time the Tigers hit a free throw at the other end immediately after, the first by Bess and the second by Taco Charlton.

The Panthers' Alexander tightened things when he swished a running 3-pointer with 11 seconds left to cut the margin to 42-40.

Out of two timeouts with 9.1 seconds left, Whitmer fouled Bess, who played less than half of the game. He coolly stepped to the line and drilled both shots to make it a two-possession game.

The Tigers turned the ball over again while trying to rush the ball down the floor and were forced to foul Chad Nelson, who hit the first of two foul shots to close the scoring.

"We're a young team, but mature beyond our years," said LeVert, who is headed to Ohio University to play next season. "It hasn't sunk in yet. It's just a great feeling."

Central was making its first appearance at the state tournament, but not its debut in a state title game this scholastic year. The Tigers played for the Division I title in football last fall, losing to Cleveland St. Ignatius, 34-13.

They beat Fairfield 60-45 in the semifinals behind 16 points from Tate and 13 by LeVert.

Central finished the year on an 11-game winning streak.

Whitmer, which had won 13 in a row, was making its fourth trip to the state tournament. Hayes had 18 and Leroy Alexander 17 in a 62-51 semifinal victory over Lakewood St. Edward.