LEXINGTON – It has been a journey marked by the cruelty of an injury to its star, wake-up call losses to two traditional rivals, and multiple tournament scares, to boot.
Through it all, Scott County's sensational seven seniors will end their journey where it was destined all along: Rupp Arena, the second Sunday in March, with the ultimate prize in Kentucky boys' basketball at stake.
Led by comeback kid Michael Moreno's 25 points and 10 rebounds, SC scratched out a wire-to-wire, 70-52 victory over tough, tireless Warren Central late Saturday night.
"I worked all through December, up to where I fractured my foot, to get to this point," Moreno said. "To be able to perform the way I wanted to perform coming out in the final four, because we wanted to get back to the state championship game, it feels great."
Scott County (35-3) sent Warren Central (22-12) packing in the semifinals for the second consecutive year, setting up a showdown of the consensus one-and-two teams for most of the season.
SC eyes the third title in school history against Trinity for the title at 2 p.m. Sunday.
"I'm always honest with my kids," Warren Central coach William Unseld said. "I told them we just lost to a better team. That's a special team, a senior-laden team."
Glenn Covington added 16 points, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range for Scott County. Diablo Stewart served up 15 points, eight assists and three steals.
Together, their speed and precision put the Dragons in an early hole from which they couldn't escape.
"It was so important tonight coming out and getting off to a good start," SC coach Billy Hicks said. "Our defense was really good, and then it seemed like we had Warren Central in an uphill battle. Third game in three days, on a college floor, plus all the adrenaline flowing, it's tough. It's a lot easier when you're ahead."
Dre Boyd led the Dragons (22-12) with 13 points. Kobe Brents added nine.
Scott County forced 15 Warren Central turnovers while committing only four.
It has been a while since anyone in Scott County's vaunted roster of perimeter pests caught fire. Covington changed that course with consecutive bombs to christen the second quarter, fattening the Cards' slim advantage to nine points.
"He banked one," Unseld said. "Then he came down and hit another one with hands in his face."
Once the Dragons adjusted to Covington, it was time for a patented Moreno takeover. The 6-foot-7 senior was 10-for-15 from the field and 5-for-6 at the line .
His hard-earned low-post bucket triggered a 10-0 surge that stretched the lead to 33-16. Bryce Long provided a key building block with a fourth-chance put-back.
Covington's steal and layup, another power move to the glass from Moreno, and a dizzying drive to the rack from Stewart deepened the Dragons' pit.
"It makes us so much better when Glenn and Diablo get going," Hicks said. "We've got good athletes, but they're probably the two best. Glenn has all the quickness and all the things he can do, but probably pound-for-pound (Stewart) is the best athlete we've got."
Two more Moreno makes – he was 5-for-7 from the field in the first half – sent Scott County to the locker room with a 37-20 cushion.
Coming off a three-week stretch in which almost every game has been a grind, including two losses and a fistful of playoff donnybrooks, SC enjoyed the relative breather it needed on the spring-ahead eve of the state final.
That said, Warren Central still never went away. The Dragons dropped their deficit to 12 points early in the third period, then countered the Cardinals' getaway by twice trimming it to 14 in the final two minutes.
"Watching them on tape, watching them play last night, gosh, I have all the respect in the world for them," Hicks said. "They're really a quick, tough basketball team. We're happy to win the game and very, very happy to be in the championship game again."
Covington canned his third and fourth 3-pointers of the game to make it 53-38 at the end of three.
Moreno scored 11 in the final eight minutes, mostly a product of cleaning the glass.
"It's just tough on us. My kids fought, but that big ol' guy just went and got a couple more than we did. It's simple as that," Unseld said. "We had two hands around the ball and here come those big ol' mitts to just take it out of there. You can't fault my kids for that, because they did everything I asked them to do."
Unseld raved about Scott County's Mr. Basketball finalist, calling Moreno his favorite player in the state's senior class.
"There's some talented kids and a lot of good kids, but playing against him twice and watching him, how he carries himself. He just goes to work, doesn't say a word, positive guy," Unseld said. "He ends up with 25 and 10, but he's just an unbelievable kid.
"He comes through after the game and tells our kids, 'Keep your head up. Y'all probably weren't supposed to be here, but you're here and you fought us.' You're talking about a special person to be able to do that after a win like that. I told him I'm rooting for you from here on out."
Additionally, J.R. VanHoose -- the legendary scoring, rebounding and shot blocking presence from Paintsville in the late 1990s -- has sung Moreno's praises this week on social media.
As a young historian of the game, Moreno said the compliments are both humbling and an honor.
"It's awesome, just because you grow up in Kentucky hearing about guys like J.R. VanHoose, Rick Jones, Richie Farmer, the list goes on," Moreno said. "Just to be able to kind of have a relationship with a guy like that who is one of the greatest to ever do it at the high school level and beyond is awesome, because you kind of get to relive it through other people."
The Cardinals took full advantage of a chance to embellish their own incredible history.
They never trailed thanks to an 8-2 opening rush that included four points each from Moreno and Lorenzo Williams.
Almost everything in reply from the Dragons was a jumper, with Moreno and the Cardinals exercising dominion in the paint.
Boyd strung together two outside offerings to give Warren Central its closest approach at 8-6.
Moreno righted the ship with a beautiful drop pass to Long for a bucket. That triggered a seven-point push, culminating with a 3-pointer and a pull-up swish from Stewart for a 15-6 edge with 3:20 remaining in the first period.
"I thought Diablo was the quickest player on the floor tonight," Hicks said. "That's why I kept encouraging him. 'You're quick. Play quick.' He got loose balls. He hustled."
Warren Central stayed within striking distance thanks to a trifecta from Antonio Barbee and three in traditional fashion from Brents.
In what was a developing theme to Scott County's benefit, offensive rebounds by Kobi Harris and Terrin Hamilton led to the latter's one free throw for a 17-12 edge after eight minutes.
Covington grabbed seven boards in his own right, and his defense limited Tayshaun Bibb to five points.
"Glenn comes to play, plays hard. I know he's a good shooter. What I was excited about Glenn was he was four feet off the ground on rebounds," Hicks said. "And guarding Bibb was no easy task, because Bibb is a tough inside player, and Glenn is primarily a perimeter defensive player where we use his quickness. But Glenn is also really strong."
Trinity defeated Campbell County, 42-40, in an opening-game thriller. University of Louisville signee David Johnson blocked a shot by Camels' star Reid Jolly in the closing seconds to seal the victory.
The Shamrocks (28-8) survived a 20-point swing that saw them go down by five points in the third quarter after leading 20-5 out of the gate. Johnson finished with 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks.
SC won 56-53 when the teams met Jan. 5 at South Laurel High School. Neither Moreno nor Johnson, who had a sprained knee at the time, played in the contest.
"That obviously changes a lot of things. This will be a whole different game," Hicks said. "They've got a great program. Very well coached, great athletes. It will be a load. I just hope we can come out and play with them."
Both powerhouses rallied from losses in their district championships: Scott County to Henry Clay, and Trinity to Waggener.
They collided in a memorable first-round game here last year, won by SC on a 3-pointer by Cooper Robb with six seconds remaining.
Trinity won in its only previous state championship appearance, 71-53 over SC, in 2012. Scott County is in the game for the seventh time in the past 22 seasons.
The Cards lost to Covington Catholic, 73-55, in last year's final. They earned a measure of revenge with a 64-61 victory over the Colonels in the opening round on Thursday.
Asked for his pick, Unseld didn't hesitate.
"Scott," he said with a laugh, before a tearful tribute to his departing seniors.