PICKERINGTON ― Steele Meister’s 3-pointer from the top of the key with under two minutes left spun in and out of the basket, just like many of Newark’s shots Friday against defending Division I state champion Pickerington Central.
It would have given the Wildcats the lead, and it was a testament to Meister, and the Newark defense, that they were even in that position. The tall, talented and athletic Tigers held them to just 35 percent shooting (13-of-37), including only 6-of-23 on 3s. But Central had to score the final four points of the night to stave off the Wildcats 42-36 in a riveting Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division showdown.
“Down two, with the ball, and we get a good look. You can’t ask for much more than that,” coach Jeff Quackenbush said after Meister’s 10-point, fourth-quarter explosion rallied Newark (11-5, 4-2) from an 11-point deficit to the brink of victory. “You can’t control whether you make make or miss jumpers, but you can control effort, and our kids gave a great one. That was a Newark effort, and our kids played hard against a great team,” Quackenbush said.
The Tigers (11-5, 6-0) thoroughly dominated the Wildcats in Jimmy Allen Gymnasium six weeks ago in a 51-31 win, and that was without Ohio State-bound Devin Royal. The 6-foot-6 senior’s presence was evident Friday with 14 points and four blocked shots. But this was a different Newark team and they made him work before he eventually fouled out late.
Still, Central looked in control, up 33-21 late in the third before Drew Oberholtzer hit a 3 for the Wildcats. The Tigers were ahead 35-24 in the fourth when Meister, a burly 6-3 junior southpaw, sprang to life. He immediately drilled a 3 from the left baseline, then another from the top of the key to make it 35-30. Royal converted a 3-point play, but Meister hit two foul shots, scored on a drive, and when Ethan Stare drove for a layup, the deficit was suddenly down to 38-36. However, a couple of Royal’s classmates rescued the Tigers. Juwan Taylor drove for a short jumper, and 6-7 Gavin Headings dropped in both ends of a one-and one with 32 seconds.
“It was next play mentality. Stay strong and don’t give in. We just kept playing,” said Meister, who finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and two steals. “Someone had to step up, and this was my turn. What better place than this big arena, this big game. Everyone wanted to win. This was for the league (title).”
Central shut down Grant Burkholder with its length and quickness, limiting him to just five points including none in the first half. Newark led only once the entire game, rallying from an early 7-2 deficit for a 9-7 lead late in the first on a drive and fadeaway by Stare, and two foul shots and a 3 from Meister off a Burkholder assist. The Wildcats hung tough and trailed just 16-14 in the second quarter after Braylon Morris made a 3 and Meister scored on a drive. But Royal turned a lob into a 3-point play and Markell Johnson’s 3 capped an 8-0 run and pushed the Tigers up 24-14 at the break.
Burkholder’s long 3 from the top of the key helped the resilient Wildcats get within 24-19 early in the second half, before Central surged back up 31-19 on Royal’s 3-pointer. Newark, however, was far from finished.
“We definitely improved since the first game,” Quackenbush said. “We only had three turnovers, and we ran better offense. We just couldn’t get some shots to fall, especially in the second half.”
Headings added 11 points and seven rebounds for the Tigers, a solid 17-of-36 from the field for 47 percent but just 4-of-15 on 3s for 26 percent.
“Our defense played well enough to win, and obviously, they’re so hard to guard,” Quackenbush said. “We’ve found out that we can play with anyone. All of our losses have come to the top four ranked teams (in the Central District), and all but one of them has been close. We’re playing this schedule, because we want to win a district title.”