LEXINGTON — Covington Catholic’s five-year foothold over Scott County at the KHSAA Sweet 16 wasn’t over until the Colonels said so.
In what nearly was the most epic comeback/collapse in the 102-year history of this storied tournament, foul-troubled SC spent all but one digit of a 19-point lead in the final 94 seconds of regulation Thursday afternoon before surviving, 64-61.
Glenn Covington led the Cardinals with 15 points. Those who remained out of 12,205 spectators at Rupp Arena — many Scott County fans left the auditorium early to stand in line for next-game tickets — saw the senior guard sink two free throws to stop the bleeding with 3.9 seconds left.
Joey Moser’s desperation heave from just inside half-court fell shy at the horn.
“Just very disappointed in how our guys off the bench handled the ball,” SC coach Billy Hicks said. “We threw it away and threw it away and threw it away. Cov Cath did a good job of pressing, battling, right to the end.”
Scott County (33-3) narrowly avenged losses to Covington Catholic (27-8) in the 2014 and 2018 state championship games and advanced to a quarterfinal clash with Louisville Butler at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Bryce Long and Diablo Stewart each added 12 points for SC.
Point guard Stewart’s disqualification on an offensive foul with 2:45 remaining played a role in the turnovers that sparked the Colonels’ resurrection, as did a blizzard of late 3-pointers from Jack Davin and Grant Disken.
SC also tried to hit the finish line without senior star Michael Moreno, who was only one whistle away from fouling out for the first time in his career and continues to recover from a broken foot.
“Our best ball handler and best passer weren’t on the floor,” Hicks said. “They started pressing, and we didn’t have Diablo. We had to use him sparingly, and then he got his fifth foul, and he’s our primary ball handler. And Mike’s our guy in the middle, our best passer, so it was tough beating their press. They’re very long. They did a very good job of trapping.”
Michael Mayer, a 6-foot-5 junior committed to play football at Notre Dame, led Cov Cath with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Disken scored 13 of his 16 points in the final 4:38.
Stewart, Moreno and Terrin Hamilton all were saddled with four fouls at the end of the third quarter. That seemed of minimal consequence when Covington banked in a 25-footer at the horn to give Scott County a 41-24 lead.
“When we have a break in practice I try those shots from half court, so I’ll say it was practice,” Covington said with a smile.
The margin topped out at 22 points, 48-26, on two free throws by Long with 5:47 remaining.
SC had more free throw attempts (26-for-33) than field goal tries (16-for-32) in a physical game where just about ant contact drew a traffic ticket.
“It’s frustrating. You go back to the end of first half and we had Diablo, Michael and Bryce sitting there. I thought we had a couple of chances to really push it out, but we just got in such bad foul trouble,” Hicks said.
It was still 60-41 when Hamilton sank two from the line with 1:34 to go.
Davin drained Covington Catholic’s initial bomb, then made a steal leading to a Mayer layup.
“All game they were getting into our guards. We haven’t exposed to it all year,” Disken said. “As it came down to the wire in the fourth quarter, we just kept moving the ball like we have in all the games before, and it showed how we got open shots throughout. We adjusted to it.”
The takeaway theme continued. Mayer’s theft and two free throws from Tyler Fleek made it a four-possession game.
Fleek stripped the ball and sank another pair. Disken picked a pocket and found Davin for another triple.
“Me being a junior, I did not want to go down in Jack or Tyler’s last game losing by 20,” Disken said. “I looked at them and said, ‘Triple zero. That‘s when we stop playing.’ Part of it was just not letting us go out like that. We were more than that this year.”
SC rushed a layup that rattled off the iron, and a Moser three cut it to four with 29 seconds remaining.
After the Colonels forced Covington to dribble the ball out of bounds off his foot, Disken knocked down another trifecta.
“The change was really going to a diamond press. Once Stewart was out, we just felt like if we let them get in the half court, we’re more prone to foul,” Covington Catholic coach Scott Ruthsatz said. “So we said let’s ramp it up a little bit, and it’s one of those things where we get a couple of turnovers, and we’ve been in that situation before where they start doubting themselves.”
Disken’s final salvo made it a one-point game with 23 seconds on the board, but SC finally broke the press, with Moreno finding Williams for a layup.
Covington matched two free throws from Disken to close it out.
“You saw how important Michael and Diablo are to us. When they’re out of the game, we’re very vulnerable to a press,” Hicks said. “You’ve got to give Cov Cath a lot of credit. They seized on that, and those kids stepped up and hit a lot of big shots.”
Scott County never trailed. It was 12-3 at the end of a lock-down first quarter. Williams and Stewart sank early threes.
Williams did a masterful job denying Disken the ball as the Cards shut out the Colonels for the final 6:08 of the period. Covington Catholic missed six of its seven shots and turned it over eight times in that stanza.
“It was our main job to go out there and lock up their best ball handler,” Williams said. “The game was really physical. We were all in foul trouble, but we just had to keep playing hard.”
Scott County’s own dry spell of 2:46 allowed Covington Catholic to close a 23-12 gap to seven points at the half.
Moreno and Hamilton scored inside to produce that double-digit lead prior to to two free throws from Mayer and a second-chance basket by Fleek.
“We had 16 (points) at half and 37 in the fourth alone. We were missing a lot of shots in the paint uncharacteristically,” Ruthsatz said. “We didn’t really attempt a lot of shots from the perimeter, because our whole basis usually is get it into the post. Some of them we got the offensive rebound and it just rolled off and didn’t go in. We’ve won games down here that way.”
Long landed two 3-pointers in the first three minutes out of the halftime huddle to trigger an 11-0 run.
“Bryce sat out the whole first half in foul trouble, so he was fresh,” Hicks half-joked. “He hit some big threes.”
The Colonels scored the next six points, but four straight makes at the line by Covington and Stewart, followed by Covington’s prayer at the horn, appeared to put it on ice.
That feeling was only magnified after Long sandwiched four free throws around a 3-point play from Jaylen Barber to give SC its largest lead of the afternoon.
Incessant whistles at both ends — 48 total fouls were called — ultimately were Covington Catholic’s best friend. They kept the clock from budging.
“Every game is different. Sometimes it’s called close. Sometimes they call some things and not call others,” Hicks said. “They finally called a walk at the end of the game, and that was my frustration. The way we play defense, we need that walking call. It made for a long night. It seemed like that ball game lasted four hours. It lasted forever.”
All was well that ended well for the Cards, who improved to 13-0 all-time in first-round Sweet 16 games under Hicks.
Williams, Covington, Long and Stewart combined for nine steals.
“We just played great defense,” Covington said. “We stayed on top of the press. We contained, and that’s our job.”
“That might have been the best defensive team we played all year,” Mayer said. “It showed. They’ve got a lot of quick guards, good big men. They’re quick. We did what we could.”
Kentucky hasn’t seen a successful defense of a state title since Fairdale in 1990 and 1991.
Cov Cath rolled to a 73-55 win in last year’s final.
“It’s the state tournament, first of all. That’s the biggest motivation. Nobody has more respect for Covington Catholic than we do. They’ve beaten us in the state championship twice,” Hicks said. “But I’m sure in our guys’ mind that our season ended in that locker room last year after they’d beaten us. So we looked at it as another chance to come back and perhaps get a win.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.