High School Basketball

A fitting finish to a fab finals

John Clay
John Clay

There were surely some who were disappointed when the Cinderellas of the Sweet Sixteen, Elliott County and West Jessamine, didn't make the championship game.

They shouldn't have been.

Not after what the Rupp Arena crowd of 15,632 was treated to Saturday night. It was an epic struggle between two of the state's more storied high school basketball franchises.

Only this time, in this National City Boys' Sweet Sixteen, after three times the finals losers, Holmes came out on top, 67-63 after two overtimes.

This game had it all, starting with the rags-to-riches story of the Central Yellowjackets, led by their animated and energetic coach, Doug Bibby.

Central started the season 0-8, found its footing, won the 6th Region, then avenged a 23-point February loss to crosstown rival Eastern by knocking off the Eagles 71-65 in the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals.

On Saturday morning, the Jackets proved too much, if barely, for tourney newcomer West Jessamine, which had ridden crafty point guard Jarrod Polson all the way to the final four before losing 52-48 to Central in the semis.

And had Central won with a 19-14 record heading into Saturday night, Bibby's club would have had the fewest wins and most losses of any tournament victor.

Then there was Holmes, a long, athletic team that shot lights-out in whipping Lexington Catholic in the quarterfinals Friday night, then did the job defensively to end Elliott County's sentimental and heralded run, ending the Lions' dream 67-57 on Saturday morning.

In truth, that win might have taken a bit out of the Bulldogs on Saturday night.

"We looked like we were in quicksand out there," David Henley, the Bulldogs' coach, said of his team's first half.

Holmes settled too often for three-pointers, and too often those threes clanged off the rim. The Bulldogs missed 10 of their 11 three-point attempts in the first quarter, 14 of 17 in the first half. No wonder Holmes trailed Central 30-21 at the half.

But the second half, the ball started to move, the shots started to fall. At the end of the third, Holmes had stuck a neck in front, 39-37.

And it seemed to have the trophy won when, with less than a minute to play, the game tied 51-51, Henley's club worked the clock and the ball masterfully to the perfect position of a Jeremiah Johnson layup with five seconds remaining.

Only, Johnson missed.

Amazingly, he missed.

Overtime.

"My team told me to keep my head up, that we had four minutes to go," said Johnson.

Make that eight minutes.

Ridge Wilson, Central's muscular two-point star, buried a bucket at the buzzer, from inside the lane, which extended the drama to a second overtime.

And surely Henley had to think, if only for an instant, about that championship game 26 years ago, when his Carlisle County team lost to Al Prewitt's Henry Clay Blue Devils in one of the lowest-scoring and most dramatic finals in tournament history.

Final that night: Henry Clay 35, Carlisle County 33 in three overtimes.

There had not been a multiple-overtime Boys' Sweet Sixteen finals since that night.

"It's so much different," said Henley. "When you're a player, you think you're supposed to be there. But as a coach, you know how hard it is to get there."

How hard it is to win it.

"I don't get too excited," Henley said. "At school they said, 'Mr. Henley, how come you never smile at the games even when we're ahead 60 points.' And I say, 'Because I want us to be ahead by 61.'"

But the coach can get emotional, and when it was finally over, after tournament MVP Ricardo Johnson came up with the clutch steal, starting a fast break that ended in Jeremiah Johnson's clinching bucket, the eyes got wet, and the tears flowed.

This time, tears of joy.

"It is," said David Henley, "the greatest feeling."

At the end of a great game.

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