WINCHESTER — The boys' basketball rivalry between Clark County and Mason County, already a fiery competition in the 10th Region, was stoked further with a wild game Friday night.
Host Clark County pulled out a 56-55 victory in a controversial finish as the Cardinals' Robbie Stenzel sank three free throws with no time left on the clock.
Mason County's Russ Middleton had hit a pair of foul shots with 4.5 seconds left to give his team the lead.
Clark County had no timeouts left, so Stenzel took the inbounds pass and weaved his way past half-court. Just before the final horn sounded, there was a whistle as Stenzel got ready to try a desperation 40-footer.
Was he fouled?
"Uh," Stenzel said with a sheepish smile, "I guess I gotta say yes."
Mason County Coach Chris O'Hearn had a different view from the sidelines.
"I didn't think it was a foul, and he certainly wasn't in the act of shooting because he was dribbling the basketball 40 feet from the basket," O'Hearn said.
Few people in the gym doubted that Stenzel would cash all three free throws.
When Stenzel was an eighth-grader, he hit two foul shots in the final seconds to beat Scott High in the region semifinals.
"I don't want to jinx the kid, but I don't think he's missed a clutch free throw in his life," Clark County Coach Scott Humphrey said.
"That's the heartbeat he lives at. The moment doesn't intimidate him. He just makes shot after shot."
O'Hearn knew his team was finished when Stenzel went to the line.
"I watched him as an eighth-grader knock down two in the regional tournament. He's a tough nut," O'Hearn said.
"He's a great player, and he hit a lot of other big shots for them tonight."
Stenzel, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, had 30 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. He was 10-for-10 on free throws, and also led his team with eight rebounds.
Only three other players scored for the 14th-ranked Cardinals. Robert Hatton and Ryan Williams had nine points apiece. Vinny Zollo, a 6-8 sophomore who has committed to Kentucky, played through sickness and had eight points and seven rebounds.
No. 9 Mason County was led by Middleton. The 6-4 senior point guard had 17 points. Treg Setty and Jordan Gilbert had nine points apiece.
The Royals' bug-a-boo was their free-throw shooting in the closing minutes when they let a seven-point lead slip away. They had some crucial misses when Clark County's strategy was to send them to the line.
The physical play inside resembled hand-to-hand combat at times.
"It was a football game not a basketball game, and they were a little tougher than us," O'Hearn said.
This clash might have been a preview of a rematch in the region tournament next month.
"I think our paths will cross again," Humphrey said.
"Oh yeah, I think we've got another big game coming."
Clark co. 56, mason co. 55
MASON CO. (14-5) — Middleton 5-13 5-9 17, Pawsat 1-4 2-2 4, Setty 3-7 0-0 9, Barner 3-4 0-1 6, Downing 1-7 2-5 4, Gilbert 3-5 2-2 9, Hamm 2-3 0-0 6. Totals 18-43 11-19 55.
CLARK CO. (18-4) — Stenzel 9-16 10-10 30, Hatton 2-7 4-5 9, Daniel 0-2 0-0 0, Zollo 4-9 0-0 8, Williams 3-8 3-4 9, Martin 0-0 0-1 0, Totals 18-42 17-20 56.
Mason Co. 16 12 12 15—55
Clark Co. 15 10 7 24—56