Scott County fans who have been waiting to see the high school version of Michael Moreno at Eastern Kentucky University — explosive, relentless, supremely confident, and with a knack for performing in the clutch — got their wish in a big way Monday night.
After single-handedly keeping the Colonels afloat in an otherwise rocky first half, Moreno capped a career-high night of 29 points with a game-winning 3-point play in the closing seconds to give EKU a 71-68 win over age-old rival Morehead State in the home opener at McBrayer Arena.
Moreno sank six 3-pointers in the Ohio Valley Conference opener, but it was three the old-fashioned way that put his team over the top with three ticks remaining on the clock.
He drew both a goaltending call and a foul, sinking the resulting free throw. EKU’s Tre King then made his seventh steal of the night at the horn to seal the deal for the Colonels (4-1, 1-0).
“In shoot-around we do a lot of situational stuff, bringing it down to the lane, if we have to go the length of the court or whether we’re on our side of the court,” Moreno said. “(Coach A.W. Hamilton) just wants us to be prepared, and that moment came tonight.”
The winning play followed a fake pass from Moreno to point guard Wendell Green Jr. With 6.500-seat McBrayer limited to 15% capacity because of COVID-19, the EKU bench added to the trickery by shouting, “Handoff! Handoff!” over the reduced din.
And then the 6-foot-7 Moreno, who has transitioned to more of a perimeter game as a freshman and sophomore at EKU, went back to the bread-and-butter that made him an all-time great at SCHS.
“Michael Moreno, he was a superstar,” Hamilton said. “We knew it was going to come down to this. We worked on that play 30 minutes today. We’ve been waiting to use it.”
Moreno matched his previous career-best of 18 points in EKU’s win at South Carolina Upstate last week.
He’s made 11 of his last 21 attempts from 3-point range and is now second on the team in scoring (13.4 points per game) and rebounding (5.4 per contest) behind King after an up-and-down start.
“We have a lot of good offensive players this year, so it was hard for me to seek out my role,” Moreno said. “But I realized I’m here for a reason. I’m here to play basketball, be a player and bring value to the team. Knocking down big shots, making plays, dishing off to the open guy, rebounding the ball, there are things I can do to bring value.”
Moreno’s first three bombs gave EKU a 9-0 lead that quickly evaporated due to a combination of the Eagles’ hot shooting and the Colonels’ listless defense.
By halftime, he had 18 of the Colonels’ 28 points, and his team trailed by 16.
“(Hamilton) been telling us for a few days, as soon as you lose your edge, somebody’s coming for you,” Moreno said. “The first half we were very lethargic, even offensively, very stagnant. Basically, Coach just set us off, and you saw what we’re capable of.”
The Colonels’ third-year leader, also a Scott County native, knew it was only a matter of time for one of his star pupils. Moreno is a tri-captain for EKU, a rare honor for a player only 18 months out of high school.
“He’s got a lot of confidence right now, in not just his game but in himself,” Hamilton said. “When he got voted team captain by his peers, that was a major boost to him, because he invests a lot not only in our program, but in our community and this university. He’s an all-around superstar. I hope my daughters grow up to marry a guy like him.”
The Colonels’ other SC connection, Cooper Robb, notched five points, two assists and two steals in the comeback triumph.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.