Only one other semifinal in the state had two teams with 44 combined wins with the season on the line in the district tournament.
When Walton-Verona and Grant County met on Wednesday night in the 32nd District tournament semifinals, someone was having their season end.
For the Bearcats, fate was not on their side as the Braves rallied from a 13-point first half deficit for a 80-76 victory Tuesday night at Simon Kenton.
Grant County turned things up defensively in the second half after giving up 50 in the game’s first 16 minutes as they trailed 50-41 at the break.
“We want to get up and down and run. They did a great job in the second half of taking away our transition opportunities. That adjustment they made in the second half in limiting our transition kind of stalled us a little bit offensively,” Bearcats coach Mike Hester said.
The Bearcats had more points at the break than they did in the first meeting between the two, a 49-47 victory two weeks ago on Feb. 8. But the Braves opened the second half on a 13-4 run to tie things up less than four minutes into the half as Spencer Breeden caught fire with a 13-point third quarter.
Breeden gave the Braves their first lead of the game with less than a minute left in the quarter at 62-61, the two going into the fourth tied at 64.
Five lead changes then took place in the final frame, the buzz of the gym from being packed to the brim getting even louder.
Julian Dixon’s steal and layup with 4:41 to play gave the Bearcats a 70-68 lead, Breeden following with a 3-pointer and a Zach Smith layup to give the Bearcats their last lead of the night at 72-71.
Braves big man Micah Wills gave the Bearcats fits all night with his length and battled off early foul trouble to then score four straight and a 75-72 lead with under two minutes to play.
Grant County struggled from the line on their next two possessions, going 1-for-3 as an Aaron Gutman layup made it 75-74 followed by a Dylan Hammonds free throw, making it 76-74 with 46 seconds to play.
Wills came up big again with a block on the other end, Joseph Utter and Hammonds sinking two free throw attempts apiece to seal the deal for Grant County and send them to their second straight 32nd District championship game.
“Second half we couldn’t make shots when we needed to,” Hester said. “We battled, they battled, great atmosphere and in high school basketball this is what it’s all about.”
Walton-Verona caught fire in the first half, hitting five three’s in the second quarter alone as Max Montgomery, Landon Bach, Aaron Gutman and Smith tallied to combine for 40 first points.
But Hammonds kept the Braves within striking distance with 18 first half points, including a buzzer-beater before the half to get them within single digits.
Hammonds would finish with 27, knocking down 7-of-8 from the free throw line and grabbing nine rebounds. Breeden added 22, Wills with 20 and six rebounds. The three combined to shoot 30-of-46 from the field as Grant County finished 58% from the field.
Gutman led the Bearcats with 18, Dixon with 17 and 10 rebounds. Smith also had 17, Montgomery with 11 and Bach nine. Conner Gregory and Carter Krohman added two points apiece, the lone seniors on the team.
“We only have two seniors, but they’re two seniors that have been here for four years and have helped mold the program. They’ve meant a lot to the program and helped lay the foundation since I’ve been here day one four years ago. They set the standard and hopefully the guys coming back can use this as motivation,” Hester said. “It kind of stinks. A lot of people don’t give the Eighth Region the credit it deserves. We’ve got some good ball teams in the Eighth Region and the 2-3 matchup here was a dog fight just to get in the region tournament.”
Grant County had the rebounding edge 31-25 and only nine combined turnovers were committed in the contest.
The Braves will face Simon Kenton at 7 p.m. on Friday in Independence.
GRANT COUNTY — 18-23-23-16 — 80
WALTON-VERONA — 23-27-14-12 — 76
Grant County (80) – Hammonds 27, Breeden 22, Wills 20, Utter 6, Scalf 3, Fox 2
Walton-Verona (76) – Gutman 18, Dixon 17, Smith 17, Montgomery 11, Bach 9, Krohman 2, Gregory 2