The 98th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys' Sweet Sixteen last week featured just about everything — stunning upsets, superb individual performances, a double- overtime thriller, and a throw-back champion.
The only thing missing? Big crowds in Rupp Arena.
■ Talk about unpredictable: None of the top four rated teams (Ballard, Knott County Central, Taylor County, Hopkinsville) made it past the quarterfinals. Too bad more people didn't come out to watch. The announced attendance for the tournament was 94,464, almost 30,000 fewer than two years ago, and the second-lowest number in the past 30 years. The 1994 tournament, the last one in Freedom Hall, drew only 84,278 fans. Why did attendance drop off so much? There were no real conflicts with Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. Must have just been a case in which the teams that advanced didn't generate great crowd support.
■ No wonder Owensboro won the state title, considering how well it shot. In its four-game sweep in Rupp Arena, Rod Drake's Red Devils shot 54 percent from the field (92 of 170), including 33 percent on threes (15 of 46). They made 75 percent of their free throws (70 of 93). The other 15 teams combined to shoot 42 percent from the field, 30 percent on threes and 66 percent from the line. Owensboro's big guys — 6-foot-9 Aric Holman and 6-7 Justin Miller — were effective around the rim. They shot 68 percent (51 of 75).
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■ This was Owensboro's 43rd appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, most in state history. Ashland Blazer is next with 32, followed by Hazard (30) and Clay County (29). Owensboro's four wins in Rupp last week gave it 47 wins in the state tournament. That's second to Ashland's 48.
■ Boyle County's 85-70 quarterfinal victory over Ballard had to be one of the biggest upsets in tournament history, especially considering how lopsided the game was. The Rebels led by 20 points with five minutes left. Dave Cantrall had Ballard rated No. 1 in the 16-team field. Boyle County was No. 12. Trying to remember a comparable surprise in the Sweet Sixteen, there was Leslie County's 75-70 upset of Henderson County in the 1990 quarterfinals. Leslie County, in its first state tournament, was rated last in the Sweet Sixteen while Henderson County was No. 4.
■ The Sweet Sixteen's final four — Bowling Green, Boyle County, Covington Catholic and Owensboro — might have zapped Cantrall's computer. Only one of semifinalists was in the top 15 in Cantrall's final regular-season power ratings. CovCath was No. 8, Bowling Green No. 17, Owensboro No. 22 and Boyle County No. 36.
■ Bowling Green sophomores Kyran Jones, Terry Taylor and DeAngelo Wilson combined for 152 points and 63 rebounds in four games. That bodes well for the Purples' chances of making it back to Rupp next year. Minutes after they lost to Owensboro on Sunday afternoon, Coach D.G. Sherrill said his players were "talking about unfinished business already." Sherrill credited seniors Tucker Sine and Malik Carothers for providing the leadership that helped the team to its runner-up finish. "We're taking home a big ol' silver ball tonight, and that means we accomplished something up here," Sherrill said.
■ Camron Justice's last game for Knott County Central showed why he was voted Mr. Basketball. He had 39 points in the Patriots' 73-68 double-overtime loss to Calloway County. Justice had 24 points in the second half and OTs, and made big shot after big shot down the stretch. He finished his career with 3,588 points, third-most in state history among boys, behind only "King" Kelly Coleman's 4,337 and Charlie Osborne's 3,647. Coleman and Osborne played in the 1950s, so Justice is the most prolific scorer in nearly 60 years. The Vanderbilt signee set a state record for free throws made, with 841, and had the third-most three-pointers, with 393.
■ Hopkinsville star JaQualis Matlock finished his Sweet Sixteen career (eight games in four years) with 85 points and 79 rebounds. That's oh-so-close to a double-double, with averages of 10.6 points and 9.9 rebounds.
■ Covington Catholic sophomore Cole VonHandorf has racked up 127 points in seven state tournament games the past two years. Clay County legend Richie Farmer, the Sweet Sixteen's all-time scoring leader with 317 points, had 87 points in six tournament games as an eighth-grader, freshman and sophomore. Farmer piled up the points as a junior and senior when Clay County won the title in 1987 and was runner-up in '88.
■ Even though the 13th, 14th and 15th regions all lost in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen, this was one of the strongest trios of mountain teams I've seen in the state tournament. Williamsburg, led by Skyler Griffith and Corey Shelton, played right with Doss. Despite scoring just six points (all on free throws) over the last 11:30, the Yellow Jackets lost only 56-50. Knott Central, one of the Sweet Sixteen favorites, lost in double-overtime to Calloway County. Johnson Central, sparked by Braxton Blair and Kyle Gullett, was on Ballard's heels until the closing minutes. The 82-60 final score didn't reflect how competitive the Golden Eagles were.
■ Owensboro and Covington Catholic, the past two state champs, were district runners-up. Only once before have district runners-up won the state title in consecutive years, according to Sweet Sixteen historian Jim Swinford of Cynthiana. Inez and Lafayette were district runners-up/state champs in 1941 and 1942, respectively. Christian County was a district runner-up/state champ in 2011, so it's happened three of the past five years. Swinford also notes that of the past 16 state champs, eight have come out of the lower bracket and eight out of the upper bracket.
■ High school sports lost another great friend with the passing of Ira Combs last week. He championed teams from the mountains first and foremost. But he always sought the best teams from across Kentucky to take part in his Joe B. Hall Prep Classic, the best one-day basketball event in the state. Combs attended the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena last Wednesday. While he was there, he asked Dudley Hilton, Taylor County's football coach, if he would help get the Cardinals' basketball team to commit to the 2016 Prep Classic.
■ Estill County senior Caleb Click realized he lost his wallet at Rupp Arena after attending Friday night's quarterfinals. He was understandably upset. The wallet contained his driver's license and some gift cards. Blain Click, Caleb's dad (and Estill County's principal) returned to Rupp for the semifinals and searched where his son sat the night before. Still no luck. But former KHSAA commissioner Tom Mills, who sat in the row in front of the Clicks, found the wallet and returned it to Blain Click on Saturday night. The rest of the story: when Caleb later checked his wallet, he realized Mills had slipped in two $10 bills. Caleb went to Rupp for Sunday's finals. He thanked Mills and tried to return the $20. Mills wouldn't accept it. "I guess there are still some genuinely giving people in the world," Blain Click said of Mills. "We will now need to pay it forward."
■ Lexington Christian's 6-7 senior Matt Rose, 11th Region player of the year, said he will sign with Samford University (Birmingham, Ala.,) on April 15.
■ Male's 6-7 senior Will Parker has committed to Walsh University, a Division II school in Canton, Ohio.
■ Jason Strader is the new boys' coach at Russell. Strader, 40, previously was an assistant at Fairview, Raceland and Ashland. This past season he coached Ashland Middle School's seventh-grade team.
■ Hazard junior left- hander Griffin Wells has picked up where he left off when he threw a complete-game four-hitter, with seven strikeouts, in the Bulldogs' 5-1 victory over McCracken County in the state tournament in June. In his first start this spring, Wells beat Boyd County 2-1. He went six innings, struck out 13, gave up one hit and no runs. In his second start, he beat Knott Central 10-1. He went seven innings, struck out 17, gave up three hits, a walk and a run. Hazard, rated ninth in the state in the preseason, is off to a 6-0 start. "We're rolling, playing pretty well," Coach John Meehan said.
■ Ashland Blazer pitcher Megan Hensley, who was Gatorade's softball player of the year in Kentucky as a junior last year, is off to a strong start in her senior season. After four games she's hitting .538 with three homers, eight RBI and eight runs. Her walk-off grand slam beat West Virginia's No. 1 team, Lincoln County, on Monday. On the mound Hensley is 2-1, with a 1.27 ERA, with 35 strikeouts in 23 innings.
■ Ben Pallardy ( Lexington Catholic), who was on the Lindenwood University bowling team that won the Intercollegiate Team Championship last year, is headed back to the national tournament. It will be April 16 to 18 in Wichita, Kan. Pallardy also qualified as an individual. Lindenwood is an NCAA Division II school in St. Charles, Mo.
■ Phyllis Sallee, an administrative support specialist with the KHSAA for 16 years, is retiring next week. She always went out of her way to help the media. Best wishes to her in retirement.