LEXINGTON – Thursday's opening round delivered domination for all but two minutes, and a stumble across the wire.
Friday's encore was a flip-flop for Scott County boys' basketball in the quarterfinals of the Sweet 16, with a sputtering start and a fabulous finish.
Bottom line for the Cardinals is that they keep finding ways to take the rest of the state's best shot and soldier on toward a state title. SC advanced to the final four for the second straight year with a 66-45 dismissal of Louisville Butler at Rupp Arena.
"We’re looking to get back to where we were and make a statement," said senior Michael Moreno, who combined 10 points with 18 rebounds, all but one on the defensive glass. "It’s kind of hard to describe how I feel, because I don’t feel I’ve completely avenged the state tournament loss yet."
Bryce Long led Scott County (34-3) with 14 points.
In one of the finest hours of his career, legacy player Kobi Harris – dad Toby starred for coach Billy Hicks on the Cards' 1998 championship team – brought 12 points off the bench.
"All year long Kobi has been a guy who’s rallied us," Hicks said. "He’s not been a stats leader all the time, but he’s been an emotional leader for us. To see him come in and play the way he did, I am so proud of Kobi."
Diablo Stewart joined Moreno with 10 points and quarterbacked the Cards' attack to a 'T' in the second half. He delivered six assists.
Trey Minter scored 11 of his game-high 16 points in the first half for Butler (26-8), the Region 6 champion coached by K.C. Goodin, a longtime disciple of Happy Osborne in the college ranks.
Butler shot 32.7 percent from the field and was out-rebounded 44-21.
"We’ve seen speed before. It’s more their physicality on the ball," Goodin said of Scott County. "I told our guys it was going to happen. If you’re not able to handle the physicality of the game, you’re going to be in trouble if you start backing up."
SC advanced to a 9 p.m. Saturday semifinal showdown against Warren Central, which rallied from an 11-point third quarter deficit to defeat Madisonville-North Hopkins. It's the second straight year the programs from Georgetown and Bowling Green have met in the penultimate round.
It took a run of six consecutive points from Harris and Moreno to finally give Scott County the lead for good midway through the third quarter.
"Of all the years I’ve brought teams to the state tournament, I’ve never been as embarrassed as I was the first half. We played selfish. We didn’t play hard," Hicks said. "I usually like to spend all day with the team, and instead it seemed like I was over here all day getting awards. We weren’t ready to play. We’ll get that remedied tomorrow if I’ve got to sleep with them tonight."
Harris, Long and Stewart hit seven consecutive free throws to pad the sudden advantage.
Glenn Covington's offensive rebound and elbow jumper with two seconds remaining in the period furnished SC's largest lead of the night to that point, 44-35.
"I thought my guys played hard. They left it on the floor," Goodin said. "We just had a stretch at the end of the third to the middle of the fourth where they got some run-outs and easy transition layups."
Terrin Hamilton's eight-point fourth quarter started with back-to-back baskets, the latter off a steal by Long, to cap a 24-8 run and out the Cards up 50-36.
His first hoop was turnaround baseline jumper that Hicks joked was a "better make" shot, so ill-advised that Hamilton would have been called to the bench if it hadn't gone in.
Hamilton later etched the exclamation point with a jam off a no-look pass from Stewart.
"It was just (a result of) trying to beat the press passing instead of dribbling," Hamilton said. "I had an open lane and dunked it. It felt pretty good."
Worth noting: The Cards held the exact same 19-point lead with 94 seconds remaining that nearly evaporated in Thursday's 64-61 survival of Covington Catholic.
"No, I wasn’t relaxed at all. Would you? After last night, there wasn’t no lead insurmountable. When we were up 10, they cut it back to eight and we were throwing the ball away," Hicks said. "That’s why I called timeout really quick. I said at least if they do it tonight I’m going to burn every timeout we got. You don’t forget something like that. That will stick you for a long time."
The Bears simply didn't have the outside shooting or gas left in the tank to throw a scare into the Cardinals. Long and Stewart combined for 11 points down the stretch to put it away.
Marquis Dorsey finished with 12 points for Butler and was named to the all-tournament team.
"If you get out of the sixth region in Louisville, you’ve got to have tough kids," Hicks said. "We were finally able to get control of the game, but you’ve got to give Butler a lot of credit, too."
The sluggish first half was still enough to salvage a 25-22 lead at halftime.
SC jumped out 12-4 on a fade-away 3-pointer from Stewart.
Dorsey and Minter scored the last two buckets of the period to help Butler find its footing.
"I think defensively Kobi came in and gave us a spark. Dorsey beat us off the dribble two straight times," Hicks said. "Kobi brought some energy to us. He kept them from penetrating as much, and Glenn Covington got a couple of steals there."
Covington's theft and cash-in made it 17-10 with 5:19 left in the period, but Long, Harris and Moreno were the only Cards to make offensive noise down the stretch.
"Defensively, trying to block shots and grab rebounds, I’m getting back to where I was with that," said Moreno, who missed the final 18 games of the regular season. "And offensively, sitting out, you see the game in different ways. I think my game has grown a bit just from that viewpoint. Now it’s more slow down, calm, gather myself and make a play."
Minter and Dorsey combined for all 14 of the Bears' points in the second period.
Butler took its first lead since 2-0 at 26-25 on a steal by DyShawn Brown and a runner from Minter. One tie and three lead changes followed before SC took command.
Scott County's shot selection improved dramatically in the third period. The Cards also canned 11 of 13 tries from the line in that eight-minute stretch.
"They made shots, and they made their free throws, so that made it tough on us to cut into the deficit," Goodin said.
SC, which averaged 80 points during the regular season, has won the last four in its five-game winning streak with 66 or fewer.
Defense, and a long memory, might be what wins that elusive third state championship for the program.
"It was a goal of mine from the start of the season," Moreno said. "We never want to overlook anybody, but obviously it’s sitting in the back of your head when you’ve made it two years in a row and you made it to the state championship last year."