RICHMOND — When Jarod Griffin, Tanner Johnson and Reese Ryan were eighth-graders, they got to sit on Lexington Catholic's bench in Rupp Arena when the Knights played in the 2011 Sweet Sixteen.
Lexington Catholic Coach Brandon Salsman said people wondered at the time why he gave the trio that privilege, "but I saw something special in their group. I knew they'd be the next guys to get us there."
Four years later, Griffin, Johnson, Ryan and fellow seniors Michael Talbott and Walker Boothe are headed to Rupp Arena as Lexington Catholic's starting five. The Knights held on to beat Bryan Station 56-53 in the 11th Region finals Tuesday night in Eastern Kentucky University's McBrayer Arena.
"Ever since we were on the bench watching that great team in 2011, we've wanted to go to Rupp ourselves," Griffin said. "Now we finally get to do it."
Lexington Catholic will play 12th Region champion Boyle County in the first round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen on March 19.
Talbott, the Knights point guard, pointed them toward victory against Bryan Station. He had 21 points, most of them coming on hard drives to the basket. He either converted layups or got to the foul line, where he was 7-for-8.
Griffin was in attack mode, too.
"If me and Jarod can get to the rim, it opens up outside shots for Tanner, and dump-offs to Walker," Talbott said. "It seems to work pretty well."
Griffin had 13 points. Johnson had 12 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Ryan, whom Salsman considers the glue of the team, had two points, six assists and five rebounds.
Lexington Catholic executed its offense to the tune of 56 percent shooting.
Bryan Station, on the other hand, had a tough time finding the basket. It shot 37 percent, including 5-for-18 on three-pointers.
Lexington Catholic's three-quarters court press slowed the Defenders' fleet guards, C.J. Walker and Andre Davis.
Defenders Coach Tommy Johnson said his team failed to follow their game plan.
"It was a little bit of everything," he said. "We missed some defensive assignments in the first half, and we didn't shoot well. Instead of attacking the rim early, we kept taking jump shots.
"When we don't shoot well and we don't attack the rim, it doesn't work for us."
Lexington Catholic led by eight or nine points most of the second half before the Defenders made a closing rush. Down 55-46 with less than a minute left, they rallied to within 55-50 and 56-51 before forcing another turnover with :03 left.
Bryan Station got a basket at the buzzer for the final margin.
Tim Dunn came off the bench to lead the Defenders in scoring for the second night in a row. He had 17 points and seven rebounds.
Tequan Claitt had 14 points and five rebounds. Walker had 10 points and five assists. Davis added eight points as Bryan Station missed out on its first region title in 25 years.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm extremely proud of these guys," Johnson said. "These seniors played their butts off the entire season. They set the precedent for our program for years to come."
Lexington Catholic's program, meanwhile, keeps stacking up region titles. This is its 12th overall, and fourth under Salsman in eight years.
"I can't say enough about this senior class," Salsman said. "They've done nothing but play hard at Lexington Catholic pretty much for their lifetimes. And to cap off their careers with a trip to Rupp Arena is something they'll remember forever."
Johnson can't wait for the experience.
"I thought it was awesome sitting on the bench (in 2011)," he said. "I thought those were the greatest guys ever. But it's going to be even better doing it myself with my teammates."
Lexington Catholic 56, Bryan Station 53
LEXINGTON CATHOLIC (24-8) — Johnson 12, Ryan 2, Talbott 21, Griffin 13, Boothe 2, Morris 4, Ogbogu 2.
BRYAN STATION (22-8) — Davis 8, Claitt 14, Caldwell 4, Dunn 17, Walker 10.
Lexington Catholic 14 11 16 15—56
Bryan Station 13 6 11 23—53
All-tournament: Michael Talbott (MVP), Tanner Johnson, Jarod Griffin, Reese Ryan of Lexington Catholic; Tequan Claitt, C.J. Walker, Andre Davis of Bryan Station; Ross Jenkins, T.J. Downey of Lafayette; Felix Wilson, Isaiah Tisdale of Henry Clay; Ephraim Otieno of Model; Ryan Schneider of Franklin County; Kirkland Humphrey of Madison Central; Keagen Stromberg of Woodford County.