RICHMOND — Successful three-point shots were rarer Monday night than empty seats at McBrayer Arena.
The yips struck the two best boys' basketball teams in the 11th Region equally. That was good news for Scott County, which left Lexington Christian's most notorious perimeter pest with nary a flailing hand in sight as he launched a potential buzzer-beating game-winner.
Will Hacker's offering from just in front of the Eagles' water cooler — most of the 5,000-plus partisans in attendance would swear it floated through the thick air in slow motion, Hollywood-style — was a whisker strong.
It bounced off the back of the rim to the Eagles' Austin Hall, whose desperation do-over was a split second after the horn and swatted away by the Cardinals' Michael Moreno, anyhow.
SC 46, LCA 44. Region champs. Again.
Breathe, if you can.
“He was wide open,” Scott County senior Cooper Robb said. “He hit a whole lot in the tournament, Saturday and the game before that. I was just praying it didn't go in.”
“That's probably the best shooter they could've had on the floor at that time,” Moreno echoed.
Intense-if-polar-opposite styles of defense, extreme familiarity and exorbitantly high stakes conspired to make two state title contenders a shadow of themselves.
The same Scott County that powered through teams from six states and two continents with a 33-1 mark — that one loss was the night after Christmas in South Carolina to a team from Ohio — struggled mightily. The same Lexington Christian who dominated the All 'A' tournament here and won in Trinity's gym languished through every opportunity to take advantage.
SC hadn't put up such a paltry point total and won since edging Eastern, 46-41, on Feb. 12, 2013. Only five times this season had the Cardinals been held below 70.
Billy Hicks, with 975 wins in his memory bank, doesn't recall many in two dozen years at Scott County that made his head hurt this much. He's lost a few that left him less strapped for words.
“Even the Moeller game wasn't that bad,” Hicks said of the Cards' aforementioned lone loss, 60-41, which set up its run to the consolation bracket title at the Beach Ball Classic. “It was a horrible, awful night.”
Armed with three starters at 6-foot-6 or taller, but perhaps on the short end in terms of quickness and athleticism, LCA stared down SC from 2-3 zone.
The cure to that clog-it-up tactic is to knock down threes. Aside from Moreno's two triples in the first half and Robb's tiebreaker late in the third quarter, nobody did. Scott County missed 18 of 21 from long range. Point totals on the night: Moreno 21. Robb 15. Everyone else 10.
“As a team, offensively, we were a little off. We could have done better,” Moreno said. “Teams have said all year that zone breaks us down, and it definitely broke us down tonight.”
Scott County atoned for its rushed, rim-rattling ways by trapping LCA to the brink of exhaustion and roadblocking the passing lane at every turn. Moreno made seven steals. Glenn Covington added three and did his customary smack-up job shadowing the opponent's best ball-handler: The unflappable Rode, in LCA's case.
Such pressure is a risk-reward game, of course, and it nearly burned the Cards after Robb's two free throws put them on top with 10.1 seconds left. LCA had no timeouts remaining, so SC made the Eagles waste as much precious time as possible. Moreno and Lorenzo Williams cornered Rode. He threaded the needle to Pearce Dalton, who drew a double-team from Robb and Bryce Long. That left Hacker lonely as a solo prom-goer in his customary spot south of the 3-point stripe.
“We told them not to leave him wide open, but it was that kind of night,” Hicks said. “We gave a wide-open three, and nobody rotated over to pick him up. Everybody sat and looked at him. I don't know what whoever was supposed to be guarding him was doing. Maybe getting a hot dog or something.”
But the night ended fittingly with a clank, followed by a horn and a deafening half-roar, half-exhale from the red-clad faithful.
“We might have used it all the first two games, who knows?” Robb said of SC's relative breeze through the quarterfinals against Madison Southern and semifinals versus Lafayette. “But defense stepped down the stretch.”
The late Jim Valvano's survive-and-advance credo rarely has known more precise real-world application for Scott County.
’Tis better to win ugly than lose pretty, though. And every championship team experiences such a moment, when it must hobble on its Achilles' heel and live to fight another day.
Hicks' 2007 state champs were held to a season-low 52 by Tates Creek in the regional final. Their 1998 predecessors endured playoff sleepwalks against Grant County and Union County.
“Now that we've got this out of the way, maybe we'll be ready to go,” the coach said. “We have to remember we played 35 ballgames and won 34 of them. But this is the closest one we've had in a long, long time.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.