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NEW CASTLE --- The Shelby County Rockets turned a successful but otherwise routine tournament appearance into a thriller Tuesday night, rallying from 12 points down to defeat South Oldham, 76-70, in the 8th Region Championship at Henry County High School.
SCHS, in its last year of being the county's only high school, earned its second trip to the State Tournament in three years. The Rockets will face top-ranked Ballard on Wednesday in Lexington.
But it almost didn't happen.
The Rockets were used to playing with a lead, keeping their heads and slowing the tempo, but that was hardly the case against scrappy South Oldham.
The Dragons (27-6), led by senior Casey Jackson's 22 points, wore them out with sneaky baseline cuts and six 3-pointers in the second quarter. They seized control of the game and, in the third, pushing their lead to 42-30 before something started to click for Shelby County's senior-laden team.
SCHS cut the lead to five, but South Oldham pushed it back to seven with 1:45 to play in the third quarter.
That's when the Rockets seemed to say enough was enough.
“None of us wanted to go home yet,” said Rockets forward Donovan Johnson, one of four seniors in the starting lineup. “We weren’t ready to quit playing basketball together.”
So senior point guard Boomer Beckley, started to do one of the things he does best: steal the ball.
He picked off an inbounds pass and drove for a layup. Then he came up with another loose ball and dished to Johnson, who knocked down two free throws.
On the Dragons' next possession, Johnson stole the ball and was fouled on his dunk attempt. He hit both of those free throws.
The Rockets had cut the deficit to one with a 45-second run, and with 21 seconds to play in the quarter, Beckley again swiped the ball and laid it in, giving them a 51-50 lead, their first since the first quarter, when they had gone up by as many as seven.
“I feel like we rocked back on our heels when we got the lead in the first quarter,” Rockets Coach Mike Clark said. “We turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. We didn’t rebound the first shot attempt. We have a very resilient group of young men.”
The Dragons tied it up at 58 midway through the fourth quarter, but Shelby earned a 6-point cushion as Johnson hit two free throws, senior Cache Tomlinson hit two more and then Johnson put back a miss by the Rockets.
Freshman Darryl Hicks, the only non-senior starter, kept that lead as his teammates twice found him under the basket to put Shelby up 68-63 with 1:30 to play in the game.
Down the stretch, the Rockets (24-5) preserved their edge by hitting key free throws. They were 14-of-24 in the fourth quarter.
Meanwhile, those easy baseline drives and open 3-pointers South Oldham had in the first half were nowhere to be found.
“Our players did a great job defensively in the second half,” Clark said. “We did a great job attacking the basket. We stopped settling for jump shots.
“Our guys were not going to quit. I can’t say enough about Donovan Johnson. Without question, he’s the most valuable player of this tournament.”
Johnson made 7 of 11 free throws, many at critical times, and scored 25 points, tops in the game, and for good measure he also had 13 rebounds and five steals.
In his support, Hicks, perhaps the state's top freshman, added 22 points, and joined Johnson and Beckley on the all-tournament team.
And now they will try again to build one more title run for Shelby County, champs in 1966 and 1978, before the program is divided with Collins High School next summer.