“All we wanted was a chance” to beat Scott County in the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals on Friday, said Johnson Central coach Tommy McKenzie.
The Golden Eagles did better than that. They were dead even with the Cardinals with 4:30 to go, and they had a 3-pointer in the air to try to tie with 2:30 to play.
But it didn’t fall, Scott County outscored Johnson Central 15-6 in the final 4:26, and the Cardinals moved on to the state semifinals with a 64-55 victory in Rupp Arena.
The Golden Eagles, who were seeking their first trip to the state semifinals in school history, finished the season 26-7 after putting a tremendous scare into the Cardinals (34-3), ranked third in the state in the final Associated Press poll.
Johnson Central made enough plays to put Scott County on the ropes, but it couldn’t knock down enough shots to put the Cardinals down for the count.
“With Scott County, you can’t give them any kind of daylight. You can’t give them any kind of easy looks,” McKenzie said. “In a matter of (30) seconds, it went from 49-49 to 54-49. It was one of those things, we weren’t able to recover from it.”
Shane Hall scored 21 points — 17 of them in the second half — and collected 14 rebounds for Johnson Central, which never led but was more than within striking distance all the way after being down 10 on two occasions late in the first quarter.
“I was gonna go to the rim no matter what happened,” Hall said. “I was wanting to score and try to get us back in the game.”
Braxton Blair pitched in 15 points for the Golden Eagles.
“I knew they were gonna be pressuring us hard up top,” Blair said, “and I wanted to try to get to the basket and create for myself and my teammates.”
Blair kept Johnson Central in it early, scoring nine points in the first half.
“I thought we did a really good job of containing Hall, who’s great off the dribble, (and) we did a good job of pressuring (Johnson Central’s Kyle) Gullett,” Scott County coach Billy Hicks. “And then daggone Blair killed us. Blair just drove, and man, he hit tough shots off the dribble.”
But Johnson Central only shot 32.1 percent from the field, it was 19-for-32 for 59.4 percent at the free throw line, and it was 0-for-12 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Cardinals guard Trent Gilbert totaled 29 points, including a state tournament-record 14-for-14 performance at the charity stripe.
The Golden Eagles hung around by holding the Cardinals to 36.4 percent shooting and forcing 18 turnovers.
“Our guys played hard,” McKenzie said. “They’re gonna make things happen from the defensive end, they’re gonna get deflections, they’re gonna get second-chance points, and I thought we did a good job of doing those things today.”
That approach impressed Scott County — Hicks called the first 16 minutes “probably the worst half of basketball we’ve had offensively” — but the Cardinals got buckets when they had to have them.
Hall hit two free throws with 4:44 to play to tie the game at 49, but Scott County’s Hines Jones splashed a trey the next trip down, and after Hall was called for a foul battling for a defensive rebound, Gilbert drained both ends of a 1-and-1 with 3:56 remaining.
”Our focus and pretty much every team that’s played Scott County’s focus has been to make sure Gilbert gets rid of the ball, and we got that,” McKenzie said of the possession when Jones hit his 3. “And the kid stepped up and knocked down a big-time shot, and that’s what good teams do and good players do, and we come down and (on) bad shot selection, give them the ball right back, (and) they go down and hit two more free throws.”
Johnson Central did get the ball back down 56-53, but Gullett’s trey with 2:30 to go didn’t draw iron.
Tony Martini was left all alone down low for the Cardinals on their ensuing possession, and capitalized for a five-point lead.
The Golden Eagles never possessed the ball with a chance to tie again, thanks in large part to Gilbert swishing four straight free throws on consecutive trips with 1:46 and 1:24 remaining.
“It got to where it was a free throw game. Whoever was gonna make their free throws was more than likely gonna take the lead,” said Gilbert, who’s shooting 91 percent at the stripe this season. “It was a lot of pressure coming on, but you gotta overlook that and you just gotta play.”
The Cardinals bench — led by nine points apiece from Jones and Austin Kendred — outscored the Golden Eagles’ reserves 20-1.
“Austin got (five) offensive rebounds, and he took the ball at Johnson Central which not many of our guys would,” Hicks said.
Scott County advances to today’s Final Four, where it will face Trinity in a rematch of the Cardinals’ 70-65 win Feb. 8.
The Golden Eagles wrap a season that included their third straight 15th Region Tournament title and their first state tournament victory since 2000.
“(Scott County) came in highly touted, and for them to know that we were there, I think that was something big for us,” McKenzie said. “You look at the last two years, we lost these games by double digits. We’re in the game, it’s 49-49 with four minutes to go. We can’t ask for anything more than that.”
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.