When Henry Clay's boys' basketball team needed somebody to help it cross the finish line first in the finals of the iHigh Fayette County Frenzy Wednesday night, it was lucky enough to have state champion sprinter Brandon Nichols.
Saying he felt no pressure, Nichols sank two free throws with 0.9 seconds left to give the 16th-ranked Blue Devils a 55-54 upset of No. 3 Clark County in the title game at Paul Laurence Dunbar.
"If you're gonna pick a guy, winning a state championship in track you've gotta feel some pressure," Henry Clay Coach Daniel Brown said. "Brandon showed he could handle it."
Nichols found himself at the foul line after what Brown admitted was a surprising whistle against Clark County.
Corey Rogers had given the Cardinals a 54-53 lead by making two free throws with 15 seconds left.
After Henry Clay turned the ball over under its basket with 2.5 seconds remaining, it fouled Vinny Zollo.
Zollo missed the front end of the bonus, and in a scramble for the rebound, Nichols grabbed the ball and was headed up the floor when Rogers was called for a grabbing foul.
"I was real happy to hear the whistle," Nichols said.
Clark County Coach Scott Humphrey was obviously upset, but he didn't vent against the official.
"One call never costs you the game," he said. "There are 32 minutes in a game.
"We pride ourselves as a program never to blame the refs, and we're not going to tonight. Players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, and referees make mistakes.
"If it happens, it happens."
Humphrey instead credited Henry Clay for playing "an outstanding game."
The Devils got terrific play from senior Kendrick Prewitt, who had 22 points, including 4-for-5 three-point shooting.
Devils point guard Wes Kimball, whom Humphrey called a "tough matchup," had 13 points and five assists.
Daniel Kiesling had 10 points and seven rebounds. Nichols added eight points.
Brown has been telling his players they needed to learn how to win a tournament, so this was a goal reached.
"I'm excited for the guys, and this shows we're headed in the right direction.
"But it's still only December. We've got some building left to do for the rest of the season."
Clark County was led by Zollo's 16 points and eight rebounds. Rogers had 14 and seven. Robbie Stenzel added 10 points and four boards.
This was third tough tournament game in three days for the Cards, who survived close contests against Bryan Station and Tates Creek.
"We gutted it out and found a way to win those, and we almost did it again," Humphrey said.
"I love the resolve of this team. For all practical purposes, we had the game won. I love the way we give ourselves a chance to win."
After Christmas, Clark County heads to Myrtle Beach. S.C., for the Beach Ball Classic while Henry Clay stays in town to play in the Republic Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic.
Clark County (7-2) — R. Stenzel 10, Zollo 16, Rogers 14, Purvis 5, Daniel 9. Totals 20-46 10-14 54.
Henry Clay (7-2) — Kiesling 10, Prewitt 22, Kimball 13, Stewart 2, Nichols 8. Totals 20-45 10-16 55.
Clark County 13 16 15 14—54
Henry Clay 15 11 15 14—55