Holmes wins first boys' Sweet 16 title

It was sweet redemption in the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena Saturday night.

Holmes junior Jeremiah Johnson got a second chance to be a hero. Holmes finally won a state basketball title. And Bulldogs Coach David Henley finally got to smile after a classic championship game.

The drama played out in front of 15,632 fans who saw Holmes outlast Central 67-63 in a riveting double-overtime finals in the National City Boys' Sweet Sixteen.

Johnson, who missed a "gimme" layup with five seconds left in regulation that would have given Holmes a two-point lead, got two clinching baskets in the second OT.

"After I missed that layup, my teammates told me to keep my head up, that we'd pull it out," Johnson said, crying tears of relief and joy.

For Holmes, it was a title long overdue. The tradition-rich program has been state runner-up three times (2008, 1990, 1978). Now it finally gets to take the big trophy home to Covington.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world just because our community takes so much pride in the boys' basketball program," Henley said.

"I know there's going to be a lot of happy people because there's a lot of pride in the program, and I'm happy for them."

This state finals was one of the most exciting in the 92-year history of the tournament, rivaling Henry Clay's triple-overtime thriller over Carlisle County in 1983.

Henley played on that Carlisle County team.

Did this title finally heal those 26-year-old wounds?

"It's so much different because as a player you think you're supposed to be there," Henley said. "But as a coach you understand just how hard it is to get to a state tournament, win a game or two, and then win (a title)."

This last win couldn't have come any harder.

After Holmes beat Christian County, Lexington Catholic and Elliott County in the first three rounds, it was a solid favorite to dispose of Central, which wasn't supposed to get this far.

The Yellowjackets had a 12-13 record going into district play. Even after Doug Bibby's team beat Graves County, upset Eastern and escaped West Jessamine, few people figured the Yellowjackets could give Holmes much trouble.

But Central outplayed the Bulldogs for a half, leading by as many as 10 points.

Henley called his team's first-half performance "ugly," especially its 3-for-17 three-point shooting.

"That's about as bad as it can get," he said. "But our kids hung in there. We challenged them and they responded."

In the first OT, Holmes took a 60-58 lead on JaMel Riley's three-pointer from the right corner with 13 seconds left in the extra period. But Central tied it when Ridge Wilson powered into the lane and dumped in a buzzer-beater.

Holmes finally prevailed in the second OT. It scored six points in a row on two free throws by Brandon Housley and two baskets by Johnson that gave it a 66-61 lead that finally zipped up the Jackets.

Elijah Pittman led Holmes with 14 points and eight rebounds before fouling out early in the second OT.

Jeremiah Johnson had 13 points and eight rebounds.

Dominique Johnson also had 13 points.

Ricardo Johnson, Jeremiah's brother, was named MVP of the tournament after averaging 13.3 points and eight rebounds and playing stellar defense.

Central was led by Wilson, the University of Kentucky football signee, who had 18 points and seven rebounds.

"Some balls didn't bounce our way," Bibby said. "I'm just so proud of my guys.

"I told them before the game, regardless of whether we win or lose, we're winners."

Central was trying for the school's third state title, and its first in 35 years.

For the usually stoic Henley, it was a moment to savor.

"I don't get too excited," he said. "Kids at school tell me, 'Mr. Henley, you should show more emotion, get more excited.' The kids tell me I don't smile enough."

How about after winning the state championship and a school-record 36 games?

"He's gonna smile, of course he is," Riley said. "He's got no choice but to smile."