Top-ranked Paul Laurence Dunbar gritted out a 58-55 victory over No. 5 Mercer County in the 99th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena on Wednesday night
Taveion Hollingsworth had a game-high 32 points to lead the Bulldogs in a first-round matchup between top-five teams that lived up to its billing. Jordan Brown scored eight points off the bench to give Dunbar a much-needed lift as Darius Williams and Jordan Lewis — its second- and third-leading scorers — combined to go 2-for-13 for five points.
“He kind of has the green light, if you know what I mean,” Dunbar Coach Scott Chalk said of Hollingsworth. “ ... He’s a closer, he’s a finisher.”
The star junior said it was different playing in Rupp Arena. “The place is bigger and there’s more people here,” he said, “but I tried not to pay attention to the crowd and just play my game.”
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The change of venue didn’t affect his shooting; he was 12-for-24 from the floor and two of five from behind the three-point arc.
Dunbar and Mercer traded leads for most of the fourth quarter after Dunbar’s Jordan Brown tied the game on a three-pointer midway through the period. Heady defensive plays down the stretch kept the Bulldogs’ title dreams alive.
With 10.1 seconds left, Mercer inbounded the ball to star point guard Will Hager. He attempted to dish the ball from the lane to the corner but Dunbar’s Justin Kelley knocked it off a Mercer player with 5.6 seconds to go.
That play came about 40 seconds after Williams was able to get his hands on a ball at midcourt. It went into Lewis’ hands and he bounced it out of bounds off a Mercer player to secure another possession for the Bulldogs.
Hollingsworth hit a pair of free throws with 2.3 seconds left to force Mercer into a three-pointer or nothing situation at the end. Dontell Brown intercepted the inbounds attempt and was fouled with 0.2 seconds to ice it for the Bulldogs. He missed the free throw, but Hager’s probably-wouldn’t-have-counted heave drew iron.
While Williams struggled on offense — his only make came with 42 seconds in the ballgame — he locked down Trevon Faulkner in the final minutes, holding Mercer County’s leading scorer without a shot attempt.
“He had been kind of on a roll for them and that was a big deal,” Chalk said. “ ... That sort of changed what they were trying to do a little bit.”
Faulkner finished with 16 points. Hager led Mercer County with 22 points on 9-for-12 shooting, getting into the paint with ease most of the night.
“I would defintiely say I left it out on the floor,” Hager said. “This is not where I wanted to end. ... In a couple of days I think we’ll realize we gave it everything we had.”
Dunbar will play Bowling Green in the quarterfinals at 1:30 p.m. Friday. Chalk said winning the rebound battle, especially on the offensive glass, will be a big factor against the Purples. The Bulldogs’ schedule, stacked with top-25 teams, has prepared it for big games like the one it finished Wednesday and the one it will play on Friday.
“That was our theme this year, to play somebody good every night if we could, so that we could have an opportunity to be ready for big games whenever they came,” Chalk said.