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WINCHESTER -- For two years running, Vinny Zollo has hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer for George Rogers Clark to defeat Shelby County.
But unlike the 2009 game, Zollo’s shot wasn’t a layin. This time he hit a falling, 30-foot bank shot as time expired to lift the eighth-ranked Cardinals (12-4).
And the Rockets (11-4) didn’t blow a 16-point lead, either. This was a possession-by-possession gritty game from the beginning.
“We did a great job of playing a very competitive game on their home floor,” Rockets Coach Mike Clark said. “I wish the outcome had been different. Not just for the simple fact that we lost, but for how hard and how well our kids played most of the game.”
Rockets forward Donovan Johnson was out most of the first half after picking up two early fouls. Shelby wasn’t winning on the boards, but four first-half 3-pointers by Cache Tomlinson and steady inside play by Darryl Hicks kept the Rockets in the game. The score was tied at 27 going into halftime.
Johnson returned in the third, and it was often up to him to hold the formidable Corey Rogers, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound center. Several times, Johnson blocked Rogers’ first shot, only to have him hang onto the ball and put it back up and in.
“He’s a Division 1 football player, and you can see why. He’s a real strong kid,” Clark said. “Our players really did a nice job throughout the game of taking away their strengths – Robbie Stenzel’s 3-point shot and their post play.”
Until late in the game, Clark added. It was in the fourth that Rogers’ put the Cardinals ahead by five points with less than four minutes to play.
They had taken away Shelby’s outside shot by extending their zone to a man half-court defense.
“They tried to cut off the first pass. It was very physical,” Hicks said. “They were fouling us basically, but we just had to play through it.”
Down, 47-42, Shelby found its spark. Johnson grabbed a defensive rebound and passed to Hicks flying down the court. Hicks made the layup and following foul shot.
The next possession, Johnson got a block. Boomer Beckley came up with the loose ball and fed Johnson for the layup. Then Clark turned over the ball over, and Hicks’ layup gave Shelby a 49-47 lead.
But Rogers quickly tied the score again with a bucket at the low post.
“Darryl did a great job offensively tonight,”Clark said. “Boomer did a good job distributing the ball on our breaks most possessions of the game. We really got back in it with that spurt. We just left them one point eight seconds too many.”
The Rockets passed around in anticipation of the last-second shot. Nigel Beach's sharp pass to Hicks at the baseline glanced off his outstretched fingers and out of bounds.
With 1.8 seconds to play, a long pass from the Rockets baseline found the 6-foot-8 Zollo, who was fronted by Johnson. Zollo, recruited by UK under Billy Gillispie, pivoted and lofted a shot off the glass and in.
“We executed in the last minute of the game like we practiced all week long. We wanted the last shot of the game,” Clark said. “I can’t ask my team to do any better with the exception of making a bucket. Vinny Zollo hit a great shot.”