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LOUISVILLE -- If there’s ever a good time for a loss, it’s right before the postseason begins.
The Rockets’ 63-62 defeat at St. Xavier, their first loss in nine games, pointed out some areas that need improvement. Namely, mental toughness.
“We weren’t making shots, and then we got frustrated and shut down on the defensive end,” Rocket Darryl Hicks said. “We kept talking back to the other team…we shouldn’t have done it.
“During timeouts we weren’t paying attention to coach Clark, and we really didn’t know what to do for a while.”
These lapses let the Tigers (15-12) back in the game. Shelby led, 17-11, through the first quarter, but St. Xavier tied the score at 28 going into halftime.
The Rockets had too many turnovers in the first half, gave up too many open shots, and leading scorer Donovan Johnson got in foul trouble and had to sit much of the second quarter.
Hicks stepped up to score 12 of his 19 points in the first half, keeping the Tigers from getting ahead.
The teams traded turnovers in the third quarter, but Cache Tomlinson hit a 3-point shot to put Shelby up, 41-36, its largest lead since the first quarter.
But the Tigers answered with a 8-0 run to close the third quarter with a 44-41 lead.
In the fourth, Johnson briefly tied the score at 48 when he finished a 3-point play, but the Rockets' shots weren't falling, and a few possessions later Shelby was playing catch up.
Down, 55-53, at the 1-minute mark, Shelby started fouling. The Tigers hit 7 of 8 free throws down the stretch.
Then Shelby didn’t foul, and Tavis Elzy finished down low off a press-forced turnover to give the Rockets a 62-61 lead with less than 20 seconds to play. St. Xavier broke the Rockets' press, and Tiger Nick Spalding made a layup to take the lead back.
With 6.1 seconds to score, Shelby worked the ball downcourt against the Tigers' press.
Boomer Beckley drove across midcourt, with Tomlinson getting set for a three on the wing and Johnson heading to the post from the opposite side.
But as Beckley tried to shake a trap with a pivot, his foot slipped out from under him, and the referee called him for a walk, ending the game.
“St. X is an excellent basketball team,” Rocket Coach Mike Clark said. “Their record doesn’t reflect how good they are. Our kids fought hard being down four or five late.”
The loss had all the emotional intensity of a tournament game, with pressure to execute on every possession. The Tigers were able to take away many of Shelby’s 3-point opportunities and close down the passing lane. They were also able to keep up with the Rockets’ speed.
While the stat numbers were comparable in most cases, one glaring strength for St. Xavier was points of the bench, where the Tigers outscored Shelby, 29-5.
“You have to play good people late in the year,” Clark said. “A win or a loss doesn’t hurt us. It’s what we gain from it. We had opportunities to win the game. We just came up one play short.”