GAME FIVE: NOON Thursday
Johnson Central vs. Ballard
Region: 15th | Record: 23-9 | Enrollment: 1,095
Tommy McKenzie (165-86) is in Rupp for the sixth time, the last four years as head coach. He played for Johnson Central in the 2000 tournament, and was an assistant on the 2006 team.
No. Player Ht. Yr. Ppg.
1 Dalton Adkins 5-6 Sr. 9.2
3 Braxton Blair 5-11 Sr. 15.1
5 Mason Blair 5-11 So 17.4
21 Kyle Gullett 6-6 Sr. 19.6
22 Patrick Rice 6-1 Sr. 2.3
McKenzie credits the Golden Eagles' resiliency for this region title. Returning starter Truman Salyer was injured in football and was lost for the basketball season. Rice was hurt in football, too, and missed some early basketball games. Gullett suffered an ankle injury in December and missed seven games. There was a silver lining to the setbacks. Untested players got valuable minutes that paid off in March. "Tyler Pack and Josh Hitchcock were huge for us in the region finals, and I'm not sure they would've played if they didn't get significant minutes early in the season," McKenzie said. Johnson Central's veterans were solid, as expected, led by Braxton Blair. "He's our point guard, and as he goes, we go," McKenzie said. Mason Blair (Braxton's first cousin) has been a consistent scorer. Gullett, overshadowed by all-stater Shane Hall the last couple years, is in the spotlight now. He leads the team in scoring, rebounding (8.1) and blocks (3.2). Gullett, a 4.0 student who scored a 33 on the ACT, is being recruited by Transylvania and Coastal Carolina.
Braxton Blair is probably the toughest point guard in the Sweet Sixteen. His dad, Kevin, was an accomplished boxer, and Braxton has grown up learning how to punch and take a punch. He's sparred with heavyweights and holds his own. The 5-11, 185-pounder carries that toughness to the court. He's not easily jostled. "Everybody on the team is good to him and nice to him, not because he's a boxer, but because he's the point guard and has the ball," McKenzie said with a laugh.
PLAYER TO WATCH
At 5-6, Adkins is easy to overlook, but his accomplishments aren't. He started a school-record 48 consecutive football games (he's a standout receiver who's going to walk on at Centre). He's also started a school-record 128 basketball games. "If you were playing a pickup game and all the kids were lined up there, Dalton may be one of the last kids picked," McKenzie said. "But he's a winner."
Johnson Central is in the tournament for the fourth year in a row, and ninth time overall. It beat Campbell County in the first round last year before losing to Scott County in the quarterfinals.
Region: 7th | Record: 31-2 | Enrollment: 1,980
Chris Renner, in his 18th year at Ballard, has an overall record of 472-104. He led the Bruins to the 1999 state title, and runner-up finishes in 2003, '07, '10 and '13.
No. Player Ht. Yr. Ppg.
4 Corey Douglas 6-7 Sr. 8.8
5 Anthony Eaves 6-2 Sr. 17.2
21 Jalen Perry 6-1 Sr. 21.1
22 Jamil Wilson 5-7 So. 9.5
32 Paul Schiavone 5-11 Sr. 6.1
Renner hears people say he's done one of the best coaching jobs of his career. The Bruins weren't supposed to be near as good as they were last season, but here they are, unbeaten against Kentucky competition, including a takedown of No. 1 Trinity in the region. "But I kind of take offense to people saying that," Renner said. "We're not doing anything different as a coaching staff, better or worse, than we always do. It's just the kids getting it done." Perry was a known quantity, although he's taken his game to another level this season. Eaves, a transfer from North Carolina (and son of former Ballard and Louisville star Jerry Eaves), was a great addition. Renner describes Douglas as a selfless player and rim protector. Wilson, who was out with a stress fracture until January, has rounded into form. Schiavone can stretch defenses with his shooting, and Jake Ramsey provides defense off the bench.
Ballard won a title in 1999, Renner's first season as the Bruins' coach. "That helped put things in perspective," he says. "Winning it early in my career made it easier for me to put myself in other people's shoes, like how I could feel for Jimmy Just." Ballard beat Just's Manual team in OT in the region finals. Winning a title early in his career also helped Renner handle Ballard's runner-up finishes in 2003, '07, '10 and '13. "Obviously, winning is the best way to leave, but when you don't, the state tournament is still about making good memories you'll carry with you the rest of your life."
PLAYER TO WATCH
Perry reminds Renner of Ian Chiles, who starred on Ballard's 2010 state runners-up and went on to play at IUPUI. "Ian had a very efficient senior year and I thought was under-recruited," Renner said. "I think that's where Jalen is now." Renner said Perry "just hits tough shots," can score in a lot of ways, and is a "game-changer" on defense. Perry is getting attention mostly from Division II schools.
Ballard is in the state tournament for the 16th time. It won the title in 1977, 1988 and 1999, and was runner-up in 1987, 2003, 2007, 2010 and 2013. Its overall state tournament record is 32-12.