If Covington Catholic's uber-enthusiastic, blue-shirted student fans were ever worried about the Colonels during Thursday night's game against Clay County, they sure didn't show it.
But CovCath Coach Scott Ruthsatz had a few anxious moments before his team eked out an 80-78 win in the first round of the 97th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.
"It was a terrific effort by our guys but Clay County gave us everyting we could handle," Ruthsatz said.
CovCath survived thanks to great three-point shooting early, and clutch free throw shooting late.
They made 8 of 12 three-pointers in the first half, and finished the night 12 of 18 from behind the arc. But they desperately needed 13 free throws down the stretch to survive Clay County's upset bid.
Nick Ruthsatz, the coach's son, was magnificent. The 5-foot-10 senior point guard had 28 points, including 4-for-7 on threes, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals.
"Nick got going early and that's always a good sign," Scott Ruthsatz said. "He's unselfish. He'd much rather pass the ball and get 10 assists or whatever he needs to do for us to be successful."
His teammates got plenty involved.
Cole VonHandorf, a poised and polished freshman, had 19 points, including two huge baskets in the closing minutes. He also made a huge steal in the final seconds.
Ben Heppler, a senior sharpshooter, had 16 points and was 5-for-7 on threes.
Bo Schuh had nine points, and Mark Schult added seven, the most important coming on two free throws with four seconds left that finally clinched the Colonels' 30th win of the season.
Clay County was led by point guard Chip McDaniel, who had 29 points, including 5-for-8 on threes. A couple of those threes came in the last 30 seconds as he kept his team ticking.
"i was kind of in a zone. I didn't really know what was going on," McDaniel said. "They tell me to shoot when I'm open.
"We played hard but just came up a little short."
Trey Farmer, playing in his first state tournament and in front of his dad Richie, had 19 points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Jake Allen, a 6-8 senior, had eight points, 10 rebounds and four blocked shots.
"It was just a fantastic basketball game. I'm so proud of my kids," Coach Robert Marcum said. "But Covington Catholic was 12 of 18 on threes, and that was a little too much to overcome."
Clay County closed the second quarter on a 19-2 run to flip a 31-21 deficit into a 40-33 halftime lead. The Tigers pushed their lead to nine early in the third quarter.
But CovCath wiped out that deficit within four minutes, with VonHandorf's back-to-back baskets tying it at 44-44.
The final minutes were packed with tension as Clay County refused to quit.
CovCath seemingly had things under control up seven with just over a minute left. But the Tigers clawed back. They trailed 77-74 when the Colonels missed two free throws with :13 left. That gave Clay County a chance to tie.
But VonHandorf stripped McDaniel of the ball and made one of two free throws with eight seconds left to make it 78-74.
Clay County still wasn't finished, though.
McDaniel was fouled on a three-point attempt with :04 left. That meant if he hit the first two free throws, he would miss the second in hopes the Tigers could get the rebound and get off a tying shot.
But McDaniel missed the first free throw. He made the second to make it 78-75. Then, when he tried to miss the third on purpose, he stepped over the line, giving the ball to CovCath.
But the Colonels still weren't free and clear.
Clay County fouled Mark Schult before the in-bounds play, leaving :04 still on the clock. Schult finally sealed it for CovCath by making two free throws.
McDaniel nailed another three-pointer at the buzzer to make it 80-78.
Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com
Mike Fields: (859) 231-3337. Twitter: @MikeFieldsNotes. Blog: fieldsnotes.bloginky.com.