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Pickerington Central's bench comes up big to help send the Tigers past St. Edward and on to the state championship game

Devin Royal and Sonny Styles are the stars, but Rasheem Biles, Markell Johnson and company come up huge Saturday in the semifinals.

By Ryan Isley | Photos by Gabe Haferman

DAYTON, Ohio — When it comes to winning a state championship, sometimes teams rely on their stars. And sometimes they have to depend on the bench.

The latter was true for Pickerington Central on Saturday as the Tigers cruised to a 74-42 win over St. Edward in the state semifinals.

Despite the margin of victory, St. Edward held an early 9-2 lead and seemingly was in control of every facet of the game. 

That’s when Central coach Eric Krueger looked down his bench and sent some of his reserves into the game.

The backups did just as Krueger had hoped, as Rasheem Biles hit a jumper and Markell Johnson scored five of the last eight points in the quarter to give the Tigers a 17-11 lead after one. 

Not only did they provide a spark on the offensive end, but Central held St. Edward to two points in the final 3:23 of the quarter.

“Biles and Markell gave us a ton of energy off the bench,” Krueger said. “I thought they did a great job tonight stepping up and coming in and really changing the game. I thought we were much more active defensively when they came into the game.”

Everyone knows Central has two stars in Alex “Sonny” Styles and Devin Royal, who scored a game-high 19 points Saturday.

Pickerington Central Upper Arlington Gabe Haferman29

Styles is heading to Ohio State to play football after reclassifying this year, and Royal was named the Ohio Capital Conference-Buckeye Division Player of the Year and first-team all-Central District this season after averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.

But those two know the Tigers wouldn’t be where they are without the contributions they get from the first guys off the bench every game.

“We have multiple spark plugs coming off the bench like Rasheem, Markell and (Andrew) Hedgepeth,” Styles said. “A few other guys are coming off the bench and making great plays on defense and knocking down shots.”

Central advanced to its first state championship game since the Tigers won the state title in 2012 by showing there isn’t a drop-off when the sixth or seventh or even eighth man off the bench gets into the game. 

Styles said there's not only no drop-off, but the bench players bring something extra when they check in.

“If anything, they can give us a little more energy if we don’t have it,” Styles said. “Some guys can have bad nights and the guys on the bench pick them up.”

Having multiple guys who can step up when the pressure is mounting during a run to the state championship game is crucial, and Central showed Saturday that its bench players aren’t afraid of the moment, even if they aren’t starting.

“It’s a collection of kids that really at any moment — starters or guys that come in on the rotation — are ready to come in and give us something,” Krueger said. “They are always ready when their number is called.”

One of the highlights for the bench bunch was on the final play of the third quarter. 

With just 1.6 seconds remaining, Central threw a baseball pass to the opposite free throw line to Johnson. The junior tipped the ball, caught it, spun and shot a 3-pointer as time expired. 

Just as Duke's Christian Laettner did 30 Marches ago, Johnson hit the shot.

Johnson finished with 13 points and Biles added 12, leading a bench brigade that scored 35 points.

“It was really great to embrace the moment and just play,” Biles said. “I just do everything I can to help our team win and keep battling.”

With just one game left to play — a state championship tilt against Centerville on Sunday at 8:30 p.m. — Krueger knows anything can happen, and it might be up to someone different if the Tigers are to hoist the trophy.

“It could be a different guy tomorrow,” Krueger said. “Or it could be a collection of guys.”

One thing is for sure — they will be ready when their number is called, even if it isn’t called to start the game.