Kentucky’s commitment to a one-class basketball tournament with all schools in a single postseason playoff regardless of enrollment ending in the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena is never more obvious than in the district games.
Which is why Wednesday evening’s District 35 opening doubleheader is at Holy Cross’ cozy George Schneider Gym, capacity 900. And yes, that’s the same George Schneider who finished out his high school career as Covington Catholic assistant principal and baseball coach.
When it comes to basketball, Kentucky is a democracy. One team, one district every four years. Whether you’re a small gym, like Holy Cross. Or a big one, like the 3,000-seat David Evans gym at Holmes. Or a big program, like CovCath, you get to host the district every four years.
So here we are, in Latonia. Where once upon a time when the Kentucky Sweet 16 was hitting the modern era, say about 1965 or so, Schneider took a bunch of Holy Cross Indians all the way to the championship game at Louisville’s Freedom Hall. They weren’t good enough to handle Butch Beard’s Breckenridge County team. But they started something for this district.
Two years later, Mote Hils took Covington Catholic all the way to what would have been the Ninth Region’s first-ever state title before a final bad bounce off the board at the buzzer gave the District (It was actually the 34th at the time but essentially the same Covington-centric teams) more bad luck. Mote would take four more regional winners the next four years but no good news, certainly not on buzzer-beaters.
And then came a couple of Covington Grant’s four regional winners as Kentucky wound down its semi-segregated secondary school system. Twice, in 1958 with eventual All-American and NBA and ABA champ Tom Thacker, and then in 1964 with George Stone, Grant – which would become part of Covington Holmes – had arguably the second-best team in the Sweet 16. An Olive Hill team hitting 34 of 36 free throws for an 85-84 win would stop Grant once. Westley Unseld and Mike Redd on one of Kentucky’s best-ever high school teams, would get them the next time.
But the District just kept coming with a pair of teams that wouldn’t be denied. Holmes got there first, in 2009, after finishing as runners-up in 1977 and 1979. Then Covington Catholic found its way back, under current Coach Scott Ruthsatz with his sons – Nick and Aiden – as his point guards, winning it all in 2014 and 2018.
That’s four different teams from the same district that mattered. Two who won it all three times. Two others who almost did. Is there another district out of the state’s 64 that can boast a four-team resume like that? If so, we can’t come up with one? Because there isn’t.
And yeah, that can be a bit of a problem now that district play is seeded as these scores from Day One around the state make clear – 71-22, 88-22, 80-29, 70-25, 78-30, and 88-21, when No. 1 plays No. 4? Is that what we had in store here?
COVCATH 84, BEECHWOOD 54
Because there’s a fourth team in the district with a bit of a different tradition from its basketball brethren. Did we say Beechwood, where the best thing the football-famous Tigers had going here was a bunch of their football guys cheering in the stands. CovCath’s “Crazies” had opted to stay home and wait for Friday’s finals.
And for a bit, so did the pressure game of the state’s third-ranked Colonels as Beechwood jumped out early – very early – to a 6-4 lead before 6-foot-8 Beechwood alum/CovCath transfer Mitchell Rylee took over. All he did against his undersized former teammates was hit on four of five shots a couple of them dunks — and grab four rebounds for an 18-11 Colonel lead at the end of the period.
Not that that should surprise anyone. Even on a bad-shooting day from the rest of the Colonels, CovCath still hit 50 percent from the field (eight of 16) in the first. Although that’s down for them. With a 56.4 field goal percentage for the year, CovCath is far and away the state’s most accurate shooting team. Put that number in the NCAA’s Division I and Gonzaga’s best-in-the-nation 52.9 doesn’t look all that great.
And while this Beechwood team may have been 7-18 coming into the District, they had that win over No. 3 in the region Dixie Heights and their football fans behind them. Down 12, 37-25, was a moral down-by-a-dozen first-half victory of sorts.
An even bigger victory was getting a third foul on Rylee as the officials seemed to be doing some guesswork at what they hadn’t seen. When they put him out of the game at 4:08 in the third on a flop, well, this was getting a bit more serious with CovCath up just 44-33. One problem for Beechwood: CovCath turned the game over to dynamic junior point guard Evan Ipsaro.
As it turns out, Ch. 19’s Joe Danneman has already picked up on the theme from that “Old McDonald Had a Farm” song: saying when this happens, it’s an “E-I, E-I, O . . . “ “Oh, heck,” was that moment Beechwood folks found themselves saying as Ipsaro darted, twisted, drove the length of the floor, and hit off-balance diving jumpers and bank shots.
When Rylee left, CovCath was up 11, 44-33. When he returned. CovCath led 60-42 with Ipsaro hitting seven of his eight third-quarter shots.
“We needed somebody to step up, we were kind of flat,” Ipsaro said. “Give them credit for hitting those early shots,” CovCath Coach Ruthsatz said of Beechwood, led by, as usual, Cameron Boyd’s 17. “When you get to this part of the season, you’d better get better,” Ruthsatz said, “I think we did the second half.”
The Colonels, 24-4, were led by Ipsaro’s 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting while Rylee returned to finish with 23 including one special two-hand backward over-the-head dunk while facing the Beechwood student cheering section. For the game, CovCath finished with 60.0 percent shooting (33 of 55) to Beechwood’s 42.2 while dishing out 17 assists to Beechwood’s nine, turning it over just seven times to Beechwood’s 13 with eight steals to two.
HOLY CROSS 85, HOLMES 75
What opened up as a game where the five Holmes starters, also all football starters in the fall, looked a little like they were still wearing pads. They were playing hard, going fast but getting little done in front of an evenly divided crowd, the second of the night which saw the gym emptied out between games. But with the state’s leading scorer, junior Jacob Meyer getting loose late for 18 before intermission, it was all Holy Cross, 43-23, at halftime.
Sure, his Bulldogs may have lost by 25 to Holy Cross four weeks ago, but Holmes Coach Brad Carr knew he had a scorer of his own, Quantez Calloway, the state’s No. 6 scorer at 28.8 points a game.
“We can get back in this,” Carr told his team, “one possession at a time. We’ve got everything it takes.”
They had football star Quantez, for sure, who went on an amazing tear down the stretch, scoring on 15 of Holmes’ 20 possessions in one stretch as the Bulldogs closed to within seven, 80-73, on every kind of shot from threes in front of the bench to follow-ups down low. By the time he fouled out in the last seconds, Quantez had an eye-popping 47 points.
Only one problem. For much of that time, Jacob Meyer was matching him almost goal for goal including three smashing dunks that had the Holy Cross fans up and screaming as he took off even before he dropped the boom.
“I noticed that,” Jacob said after the game. What he hadn’t realized, he said, until it happened with 6:09 left was that he had broken Joe Harney’s all-time career scoring record of 2,096 at Holy Cross – and in less than two seasons.
“I had no idea,” said Jacob, averaging a state-best 38.5 points a game, as he palmed the game ball presented him afterward. “But we need to stay engaged all the way to the end,” he said.
That was the message from Coach Casey Sorrell. “We were up 26 and didn’t stay engaged the way we should have . . . you want to be tested a little but I wouldn’t say that’s the scenario we wanted.”
Of Calloway’s performance: “He’s a scorer at all three levels,” Sorrell said, “I think he could have thrown it up there from half-court and it would have gone in.”
And now it’s Holy Cross hosting CovCath Friday, a game these two played two months ago here with CovCath the 87-45 winner.
“I think it’s going to be really fun,” Meyer said.
Both teams will advance to the Ninth Region Tournament in 10 days at NKU’s BB&T Arena. They’re essentially playing for seeding. And pride. And to get better. And for the fun of it, as well.