What if Division I signee Carter Hendricksen hadn’t been helped off the court with a game-ending ankle sprain midway through the third quarter?
What if Will Hacker’s three-point try from the corner swished through the net instead of bouncing off the rim?
What if No. 5 Lexington Christian Academy could have connected on any of the other 19 shots it missed over the course of its first appearance in the 11th Region championship game?
There were more than enough hypothetical questions to go around after the Eagles’ 46-44 loss to No. 2 Scott County in the finals Monday night at Eastern Kentucky University’s McBrayer Arena. At the end of the night, though, the Eagles couldn’t add another mind-blowing chapter to their historic season.
LCA won its first All “A” Classic state championship in January. A few weeks later followed up that performance with a 43rd District title – the program’s second straight after having never won one – and won its first and second 11th Region tournament games last week, securing its first trip to the finals.
The Eagles’ campaign ended with another loss to Scott County. It was their second this season, and the second that featured a game-ending injury in the third quarter to one of their star players. Kyle Rode suffered an ankle sprain in LCA’s 68-59 loss at Scott County on Dec. 7; Hendricksen weaved into the lane for a layup that put the Eagles up 26-23 but landed awkwardly and had to be helped off the floor by a trainer midway through the third period.
“It’s hard when you see kids work so hard for four years, and we felt like we finally found something offensively, and he was a big part of what it was, for him to go down tonight and not at least be able to play it out,” LCA head coach Nate Valentine said. “It’s not so much the loss that bothers you, but the way that it happened, and the fact that we didn’t get to give ’em our best shot the last whatever amount of time he was out.
“ … We said, ‘Let’s just be close at halftime and then we’re gonna make a run at ’em.’ We felt like we found something coming out of halftime and for him to not be able to play it out, to just see. It may have been the same outcome but it’s disappointing for the kid.”
Cooper Robb delivered the go-ahead free throws for Scott County with 10.1 seconds left. LCA inbounded and got the ball up court to Hacker, who released a three-pointer from the corner that was a hair long.
It was LCA’s 11th three-point miss of the night; the Eagles went 3-for-14 from long range and 14 of 34 from the field overall.
“For whatever reason we didn’t shoot the ball particularly well tonight and to beat them you’ve got to hit shots,” Valentine said. “I thought we did a nice job defensively. They’ve been routing people pretty good and we did a nice job defensively and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
LCA will graduate two-thirds of its “big three:” Hendricksen, a 6-foot-8 forward who’s signed with North Florida University, and Austin Hall, a 6-foot-6 senior who’s headed to the University of the Cumberlands.
Kyle Rode, a 6-foot-5 junior with multiple Division I offers, should be a 2019 Mr. Basketball challenger. He’ll return along with a good chunk of the guard rotation.
“To be honest, this team’s been a special team for me and my family,” Valentine said as he fought off tears. “They’ve trusted me from day one.”
LCA struggled early after lofty preseason expectations. They lost five of their first nine games.
“In December I kicked ’em out of the locker room and took their practice gear,” Valentine said with a laugh. “I treated ’em like crap for about two weeks and they come back and win whatever it was, 27 out of 29, to finish (the year). … All ‘A’ State champs and back-to-back district champs in the toughest district in the state. And to get to the region finals and come that close? I’m so proud of these guys.”
Valentine said he can’t yet give a thought to what the Eagles will look like next season.
He has to wait a while for the “what ifs?” to pass.