Committing to Michigan State in the fall, Gahanna combo-guard Javon Bess was a late bloomer as a high-major prospect in the recruiting world. As he has done his whole career, Bess saved his best for last, making several key plays in the final minutes helping lead Gahanna to a 73-72 win over rival Pickerington Central, one that secured the Lions a split of an OCC-Ohio division title.
Facing a Pickerington Central team without Ohio State signee Jae'Sean Tate, the casual basketball fan in Central Ohio thought Friday night's game at Otterbein University would be a rout for Gahanna. As combo-guards Rodney Culver and Connor Kern combined for 51 points for Pickerington Central, the Tigers nearly pulled off a major win that would've secured an outright division title for the undermanned visitors.
The star of the night, Bess finished with a hearty stat line, going for 24 points, six rebounds, three assists, five blocks and three steals.
Trailing 70-66 with just over four minutes to go, Gahanna would close out on a 7-2 run, helped mainly by Bess' excellent play on both ends of the floor. Connecting with Nick Ward to cut the lead to two with 3:20 remaining, Bess would be key on the ensuing defensive stop by Gahanna, finishing in transition to tie the game at 70 with 3:01 to go.
Bess would force a steal on the following Tiger possession, and nearly a minute later would hit one of two free-throws to give the Lions a 71-70 lead with 1:59 to go. Forcing two blocks on the defensive end on Pickerington Central's following possession, Bess' final block would fall into the hands of junior Pick Central guard Eric Johnson, whose baseline jumper put the Tigers ahead 72-71 with 1:23 to go.
Pickerington Central looked to be on track to secure a monumental win as sophomore forward Jalen Tate forced a huge steal on the ensuing Gahanna possession. With Kern going to the line for a one-and-one with 38.1 seconds to go, the Arkansas State commit's first attempt missed short, giving Gahanna the chance they had battled for all game.
Inbouding to senior guard Manny Powell with 23.1 seconds to go, the 5'9 guard would score his only points of the second half, driving left for a tough finish with 8.4 seconds to go, putting Gahanna ahead 73-72.
On Pickerington Central's ensuing possession, Culver would drive left for what looked to be an open lane to the rim, only to have his attempt swatted out of bounds by Bess, who had five blocks on the night. Inbounding the ball with 2.8 seconds to go, Pickerington Central went to the senior Kern would miss short on a potential game-winning three, ending the night with 25 points and ending the Tigers' regular season with a split division title in the OCC-Ohio.
Outside of Bess, Gahanna received a major lift from the sophomore center Ward, who controlled the offensive glass en route to a 19-point, 11-rebound performance. Powell added 13 points and two assists, while sophomore forward Matt Moyer had a solid outing, going for eight points and five rebounds. Moyer played with an aggression that hasn't been seen from the sophomore, making several key plays in transition on the offensive end, in addition to snagging tough rebounds.
For Pickerington Central, the junior Culver led all Tigers with 26 points, in addition to a team-high eight rebounds. Taking over a larger scoring role with the absence of the senior Tate, Culver has been arguably Central Ohio's top breakout performer, as the junior has performed at a high level against the top competition. Kern added 25 points, including 19 in the second half alone, 15 of which coming from behind-the-arc. Missing on all of his three-point attempts in the first half, Kern's clutch shooting in the final two quarters kept the Tigers within striking distance, and were nearly enough to secure a major win.
With Gahanna's victory, the Lions (19-3, 11-3), Pickerington Central (16-5, 11-3) and Newark (17-4, 11-3) all remain tied atop the vaunted OCC-Ohio.
After finishing fifth in the division a year ago, Gahanna looks to be the toughest and most complete Division-I team in Central Ohio heading into tournament time. Behind the play of Bess, and balanced scoring from Powell, Ward, and Moyer, its no telling how far this Lions team can make it in the postseason.