‘That wasn’t the way it was supposed to end’: Centerville ends 3-year rivalry with loss in state basketball semifinals

The most anticipated game of the state tournament — Centerville vs. Pickerington Central in a Division I state semifinal — was destined to come down to the final seconds. That’s what every one of the 8,517 fans in UD Arena Saturday night wanted from the two teams that met in the state final last year.

The score was tied with 5.4 seconds left and Pickerington Central inbounded from the right sideline on its end of the court. Everyone knew Devin Royal, this year’s Mr. Basketball and Ohio State signee, was the guy to take the final shot. He already had 23 points.

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Centerville’s Gabe Cupps, last year’s Mr. Basketball and Indiana signee, knew it too. The 6-foot-6 Royal was trying to post up 6-6 Baboucarr Njie on the block, which is the last place the Elks wanted Royal to get the ball. So Cupps stayed close to Royal as Markell Johnson curled around and up the sideline.

The pass went into Johnson, the clear second option, and Cupps picked him up. Johnson dribbled across the lane and shot the toughest of shots — a running left-handed hook shot. He made it with Cupps guarding him tightly for a two-point lead, and the Elks quickly called time out with 1.3 seconds left.

“He made a tough shot,” Cupps said. “But I should have made him go right. Just not following the scouting report.”

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The Elks’ last chance would be a long pass, catch and most likely an off-balance shot. Kyle Kenney set up to throw the pass against 6-foot-7 Gavin Headings. But Headings tipped the pass, grabbed the ball and laid it in. The Tigers’ second buzzer-beater capped a 57-53 victory for the Tigers.

“I mean, guys, he made a 10-foot running hook shot that was going to his left,” Elks coach Brook Cupps said. “You can’t take everything away.”

“People probably look at this as disappointment for us because everybody thought we were supposed to win,” Elks senior Emmanuel Deng said. “But I look at as another step forward for our program. No (Centerville) team has ever made to the final four and we’ve done it three straight years. The biggest thing I’m happy about right now is, like I said in the locker room as well, we did something for the younger guys and we pushed our standards. That’s all you could ask for.”

Gabe Cupps felt the same way. He opened the game with two 3-pointers, made three game-tying free throws with 52 seconds left and scored 22 points and had seven assists in his final game.

“After the game I was just like, damn, because I feel that wasn’t the way it was supposed to end,” he said. “But I’m just grateful to be in a program and be with guys that I really care about. I was more emotional last year with those seniors leaving, but now it’s myself. I think I always care more about other guys than myself. So I’m just grateful and thankful to be a part of something.”

Even in the loss the Elks played well. They shot 60.6%. Deng scored nine points and Njie and Jonathan Powell scored eight. They stayed strong through 10 ties and nine lead changes. But there was no accounting for Central’s Juwan Turner making all four of his 3-point shots, including one with 1:10 left for a 53-50 lead, and Johnson’s difficult winning shot.

When Cupps started as a freshman point guard the Elks went 15-12. The next season they went on a tournament run with Cupps, Tom House and Rich Rolf leading the way and won state. In the past three years, the Elks played in three state tournaments, compiled an 80-8 record and lost only one GWOC game.

“You have those runs when you have really good players and you have guys that are committed and dedicated,” Brook Cupps said. “More than the run I’m grateful that we do it the way we do it and our guys are faithful to doing it that way. Guys are disappointed in the locker room right now, but I said in the locker room that’s going to be dust in a while. It’s all good. We’re good. I wouldn’t change anything that we did and how we do it. And so, from that perspective, I have zero regret.”

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