By Dave Malaska
NEW CASTLE, Ky. – Simon Kenton converted on a steal and fast break with 34 seconds left then hit three free throws down the stretch, surviving another scare in the 8th Region tournament by edging Oldham County, 60-57, Monday night at Henry County High School.
The Pioneers (15-13), who led by as many as 14 points in the second half, trailed by two points with 1:41 left after Oldham County's Hayden Hawes rebounded his own miss and scored inside.
Simon Kenton appeared to have squandered its last chances when a Brenan Kuntz crosscourt pass sailed high and into the stands on the Pioneers' next possession and Alex Childers' 3-pointer was long the next time down the court.
But as Hawes brought the ball up, Kuntz and Taylor Morrison tied him up at half court. Morrison came away with the steal and found a streaking Noah Robinson on the fast break. The junior scored and was fouled, tying the score at 57, but he missed the bonus.
After an Oldham County turnover, Kuntz converted both ends of a 1-and-1, then the Pioneers stripped Hawes again with three seconds remaining before Kuntz hit another free throw for final tally.
"We looked like a deer in headlights there for a while, and they scored eight points before we found a way to pop the ball loose, hit some free throws and held on,” Simon Kenton coach Trent Steiner said. “We found a way to win the game. The luck of the draw, the bounce of the ball and a good call, man."
It was the second scare in a row in Simon Kenton's tournament run after the Pioneers beat Shelby County, 79-69, on Friday, seeing a fourth-quarter lead dwindle to just a point with 45 seconds remaining before pulling away.
On Monday, after handling the Colonels' full-court pressure for 28 minutes, Simon Kenton struggled for the final four minutes, committing seven turnovers over the next 2½ minutes, culminating in Kuntz's errant pass to the third row.
"I think nerves got us again, but we fought and stayed with it and got the win," Morrison said.
Kuntz led the Pioneers with 14 points, including three 3-pointers, while Morrison chipped in 11 – all but two coming on the free throw line. Robinson also finished with 11 points, while junior Matt Mullins put in a yeoman's effort with seven points, 11 rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal.
Steiner said it's sometimes easy to overlook players key to a win. On Monday, those were Robinson and Mullins.
"Matt's a warrior. Nobody understands how hard he works," Steiner said of his 6-feet-4 junior who also helped the Pioneers shut down Oldham's inside game. "Matt deserves everything he gets. A lot of kids don't deserve what they get, but he deserves every single thing that comes his way. He works his tail off. He does all the dirty work that you need on a winning team.”
Robinson, along with scoring on the fast break to tie the game late, scored six of his points in the clutch time late in the game. Steiner said he's talked to the junior about being a team leader.
"Tonight, he led," Steiner said. "That's hard on a team that has guys like Brenan Kuntz, a Division I quarterback, and Taylor Morrison, who averages 21 points a game. But he did it."
Hawes was the Colonels' leader with 20 points, 10 coming during Oldham County's fourth-quarter rally. Junior Connor Hicks finished with 12 points and forward Austin Perkins had 10.
After a slow start, Simon Kenton went on a 7-0 run to end the first quarter, capped by Kuntz's fast-break layup at the buzzer to put the Pioneers up, 15-9. Mullins put them up by seven early in the second quarter on a three-point play after converting a rebound, but Oldham County was able to chip the deficit to three by the break.
Kuntz hit a pair of quick treys after play resumed in the third, and junior Jaeger Pracht's driving basket put Simon Kenton's lead at 11 two minutes in. A Morrison driving jumper four minutes later pushed the lead to 14, the Pioneers' largest lead of the night.
Simon Kenton's lead still seemed safe with five minutes to go in the game, then miscues began to take their toll and the Colonels fought their way back to a late lead.
"You have to give Simon Kenton the credit – they were physical, they played solid defense and didn't let us go on runs,” Colonels coach Coy Zerhusen said. “(Simon Kenton) killed us on the boards. Early on, they didn't turn the ball over, either, which kept us from doing what we do.”
It was unlike these teams’ previous meeting, a Feb. 7 game that Oldham County won, 72-65, after the Pioneers turned the ball over "like it was our job," according to Steiner. Until the late stagger, Simon Kenton took much better care of the ball on Monday, committing just 10 turnovers through three quarters despite the Oldham County pressure.
"That's the way we should have been playing all year,” Steiner said. “When we lost to Scott (92-80 on Feb. 15), we got embarrassed. We had practice that Sunday for 3-1/2 hours. Not a brutal one, just to talk about where we were and what we were doing."
The team responded just in time for the
tournament. The Pioneers, a tourney dark horse, have won five of their last six games.
They'll go for their sixth win in seven games on Tuesday, facing defending regional champion South Oldham (21-4) for this year's title and a berth in the state's Sweet 16.
The Dragons survived their own scare on Monday by outlasting Collins, 63-62, when the Titans' last gasp clanged off the iron as time expired.
Game time is at 7 p.m.
OLDHAM CO. 9-16-12-20—57
S. KENTON 15-13-16-16—60
OLDHAM CO. (23-7): Taylor 0 1 1, Hawes 7 6 20, Wirth 1 2 5, Bates 1 0 2, Eldridge 3 1 7, Hicks 5 1 12, Perkins 5 0 10. Totals 22 11 57.
SIMON KENTON (15-13): Kuntz 4 3 14, Pracht 3 0 6, Vercheak 2 1 5, Morrison 1 9 11, Mullins 2 3 7, Childers 2 0 6, Robinson 5 1 11. Totals 19 17 60.
3-pointers: OC—Wirth, Hicks. SK—Kuntz 3, Childers 2.