After the game – after Pickerington Central had edged archrival Centerville, 57-53, in the Division I state semifinal Saturday night at UD Arena – Tigers coach Eric Krueger gave props to both teams:
“These are two great teams…with really athletic kids. (Both) teams are elite defensively. They’ve got guys who can really defend on both sides.”
That was true, but the most intense defense of this night came some 30 minutes after the game had ended.
As the Centerville media session came to a close – a short give and take where head coach Brook Cupps, along with his son Gabe, the star of the team, and fellow senior guard Emmanuel Deng – the moderator, noting there were no more questions, dismissed the Elks with an: “OK, thank you.”
And that’s when Brook Cupps decided to get something off his chest.
“Could I say one thing?” he began. ”There’s been a ton of stuff ...a bunch of stuff about the Mr. Basketball…” Ohio’s Mr. Basketball is an annual award meant to single out Ohio’s top individual high school player. Once awarded by the Associated Press, it’s been decided the past six years by a vote of the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association.
Gabe Cupps won the award as a junior last season.
Pickerington Central’s Devin Royal – who was not among the six finalists last year – won this year, edging Cupps 90-87 in the final vote. The award was announced Wednesday and presented on the court before Saturday’s game.
In the semifinal, both players lived up to their billing. Royal had 23 points. Cupps had 22 points and added seven assists.
The pair have been the central figures in the four games the two schools have played over the past three seasons. Each school has won twice.
Centerville won regular season games in January of 2021 and this past December. The Tigers triumphed in last year’s state championship game, 55-48, and Saturday by four.
Both players are their school’s all-time career scorers. Next year Royal will play for Ohio State and Cupps is headed to Big Ten rival Indiana.
Their high-profile back and forth has spawned comparisons and debate and Brook Cupps felt he needed to address that afterward:
“We’re happy that Devin won this award. We don’t have any ill feelings. We think Devin is a great player.
“What’s been disappointing to me about all this stuff – and I’m off social media, but people still send me screen shots – is that it’s become ‘It should have been two times!…It should have been two times!…It should have been two times!’”
He said some critics were saying Royal also should have won last year when his son did:
“To me, that’s disrespectful of what Gabe did last year. If you think (Devin) is a better player, that’s fine…I wouldn’t have had a problem with him winning it last year. He’s deserving of this award.
“But I don’t think you can go back and discredit what Gabe did last year and (say) he didn’t deserve that award. I feel like that part of it has been a lot of disrespect.”
“And I don’t take Gabe’s side very often.’ Sitting two seats away, Deng smiled and nodded.
“It’s not Devin,” Brook continued. “It’s some people around it. There’s been a lot of talk. (But) it’s definitely not that we think, that I think, that Gabe should have won the award this year That’s not it.
“I just don’t feel like there’s respect for what he did last year. I don’t feel it’s been a mutual expression,
“So, I just wanted to make sure I say that.”
Ignoring the talk
Although he may be right, I don’t think his comments were necessary Saturday. I thought they detracted from the moment and gave recognition to the online trolls and haters who should be ignored.
Besides Gabe fares pretty well on social media. He has close to 372,000 Instagram followers and the video of him as a 14-year-old challenging LeBron James to a three point shooting contest had over 1.5 million views.
Since then James has become a fan of Cupps and congratulated him on social media when he signed with Indiana.
After his dad finished, Gabe, who had sat there looking uncomfortable, took the high road:
“It doesn’t matter to me. He could have won it last year and this year.”
In private later, he added: “I know (Devin) pretty well. We talked at the Top 100 camp over the summer. I think he’s a great player. He’s a good kid. I’m happy for him.”
When it was announced he’d won Mr. Basketball, Royal told a Columbus reporter:
“I’m happy. I wish I’d have gotten it last year, too….Once he got it, I wanted to get it even more this year.”
After the game, Krueger and Markell Johnson, who had scored the winning basket with under two seconds left, both said complimentary things about the Centerville team and Cupps, in particular.
“He’s a great player and he hit a lot of tough shots,” Kruger said.
At the end of the Pickerington press conference, Krueger headed over to the waiting Centerville contingent and shook hands with Gabe, his dad and Deng.
Practice makes perfect
The most refreshing postgame comments came from Johnson.
With 5.4 seconds left in the game, the score knotted 53-53 and an arena crowd of more than 8,500 on its feet in anticipation, the Tigers’ Juwan Turner inbounded the ball from the sideline. His first option was to get the ball to Royal, but Cupps had drifted back to help bottle up the 6-foot-6, 210-pounder.
That set the stage for Johnson who worked his way up from the right block, caught Turner’s pass on the wing, took two dribbles into the paint and, with Cupps closing on him after leaving Royal, he hit a running, left-handed hook shot from nearly 10 feet.
That put the Tigers up, 55-53.
With 1.3 seconds left, Centerville hoped to throw a long pass down court that Cupps could catch and then shoot instantly. Instead Pickerington’s 6-foot-7, Devin Headings, who was face to face with the inbounder, snagged the pass and laid the ball over the rim at the buzzer to give Pickerington Central the 57-53 victory.
Talking about big shot, Johnson, who had had just one other field goal Saturday, exuded freshness and honesty:
“It was a little bit of luck at the end of the day…but also skill.
“Ever since I was a little kid I practiced game-winners in the driveway.”
Except for Cupps – who he said came out “red hot” and instantly hit a pair of three pointers – Johnson thought both teams were rattled:
“It’s the first quarter of the state semifinal game. Kids are gonna be nervous. The first three minutes everybody had jitters. We’re still high school kids.”
You were reminded of that again at the end of the game when several Centerville players went through the handshake line in tears, none more so than Gabe Cupps.
His dad said he tried to give the players some perspective afterward:
“Guys are disappointed in our locker room, but like I told them: ‘(These feelings) are going to be dust in a while. It’s all good. We’re good.’”
This team – especially the six seniors – have made a huge impact on Centerville basketball, not just in the wins and losses ledger, but in the culture and expectations of the program
Centerville advanced to the state tournament three straight years, won the Division I championship in 2021, had a 45-game winning streak, a No. 4 ranking in the nation and produced an Ohio Mr. Basketball.
Asked about his legacy, Gabe Cupps ended the Centerville session on the right note:
“As long as the underclassmen, the guys there with us, feel like I gave it my all and taught them something, then I’m good.
“It was never my goal to impress people and score a bunch of points. I was just trying to play, to come to work every morning.
“If we had practice at 6, I was there at 5. Just so the guys can see me doing that. And then they know when they see me step up to the free throw line and make three free throws to tie the game – (as he did Saturday night with 52.3 seconds left) – they know why I was able to do that.
“I just want them to be able to look to me to become a better player, a better person and a harder worker.”
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