Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 7, 2013

Mighty Task

Johnson Central knows an upset of Ballard would 'shock the state'

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

LEXINGTON — Johnson Central’s coach couldn’t bear to watch any longer.

“I watched one quarter of film, then turned the daggum thing off because it scared me to death,” quipped sixth-year coach Tommy McKenzie.

McKenzie was referring to his team’s next opponent, Louisville Ballard. The Golden Eagles, at Rupp Arena for the second straight season, will take on the heavily favored Bruins tonight at 6:30 in the opening round of the KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen.

According to the Cantrell ratings, Ballard is the No. 1 team in the tournament while Johnson Central is the polar opposite, at 16th.

“We’ve got a tough draw. I told the kids, ‘You know the saying, we could shock the world? We could shock the state for sure,’” McKenzie said.

Johnson Central (22-10) is coming off its second consecutive 15th Region championship run. Highly touted 6-foot-9 junior Shane Hall was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player for the second straight year after helping lead the way past Prestonsburg, Pikeville and Sheldon Clark.

The Golden Eagles are making the most of their trip, having arrived on Tuesday. They practiced in the University of Kentucky’s Joe Craft Center on Wednesday morning before taking in Madison Central’s 81-56 win over Wayne County from the stands.

“I think I enjoyed it better than the players did, growing up a UK fan,” McKenzie laughed about practicing where the current crop of Wildcats practice. “These guys will look back and remember these types of things.”

Today’s game will feature two of the nation’s best Class of 2014 prospects. Hall is No. 83 on rivals.com. He has received scholarship offers from Tennessee, Butler and UAB, among several other schools. Quentin Snider, Ballard’s point guard, is ranked No. 33 and has already verbally committed to Louisville.

While McKenzie said Hall prefers to stay out of the spotlight, his play suggests otherwise. His 92 blocks this season hoisted him to seventh all-time in Kentucky high school history — he’s on pace to break the current mark, according to the school. His 813 career rebounds are a school record.

Even while battling injuries, Hall averaged 15.5 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game — he played in 26 of the Golden Eagles’ 32.

“He’s such a selfless player,” McKenzie said. “He hates the spotlight being on him. You don’t see that a lot.”

There are other Golden Eagles of whom to take note.

All five players who started in a 49-36 Sweet Sixteen first-round loss to John Hardin a season ago are back. Braxton Blair is the team’s second-leading scorer (13.9 PPG), while lanky 6-6 sophomore Kyle Gullett (9.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG) has made significant strides this season.

“We like for people to come watch Shane and leave talking about somebody else also,” McKenzie said.

Much of the talk heading into this tournament has revolved around Ballard (AP No. 2), which elminated top-ranked Trinity in the Seventh Region championship game at Valley High School in Louisville this past Saturday.

Snider poured in 21 points and pulled down nine boards in the 57-46 defeat of the Shamrocks.

Ballard (29-4) has won 15 straight games, all by double digits. Its only loss to a Kentucky school this season came against Trinity — a 53-52 loss six weeks ago.

“Ballard’s not just very athletic and very talented. They also work their tails off,” McKenzie said. “We know we’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve just got to take care of business on our end.”

McKenzie said Johnson Central is accustomed to being the team that presses and causes turnovers in the 15th Region. The Golden Eagles are now preparing to face relentless pressure themselves.

“We’re telling our kids right now, ‘They’re going to make shots. Don’t get caught up in if they dunk the ball, or if we turn it over. Move on to the next play,’” McKenzie said. “If we can give ourselves a chance at the end, that’s all we can ask for.”

Snider is complemented by Kelan Martin (19.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG) and Lavonne Holland (14.1 PPG) for Ballard.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.