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LONDON — Two wounded but still highly respected boys’ basketball programs collided Saturday night in a neutral-court showdown with mid-season bragging rights, for whatever they’re worth, at stake.
As it did in last year’s KHSAA Sweet 16 and as it has done so many times over the past two weeks, Scott County found a way, holding off Trinity, 56-53, in the Raymond Reed Classic at South Laurel High School.
“If we played them 100 times, it would be a battle 100 times,” SC coach Billy Hicks said. “If we meet them down the road, it’ll be another war. “
Diablo Stewart led No. 1 Scott County (15-1) with a season-high 25 points, including 11-for-12 from the free-throw line.
He hit six straight in the final 45.9 seconds of a grinding game in which he never left the court for a substitute.
“Coach tells me I’ll be playing some more minutes, so I’ve got to play my game, be aggressive and get in better shape,” Stewart said, “A lot of us are playing a lot of minutes now, so we’re depending on each other.”
Bryce Long added 15 points and seven rebounds for the Cardinals, who needed a third-quarter comeback for the second consecutive night after rallying for a 42nd District win against Henry Clay in Lexington on Friday.
Since losing star Michael Moreno to a broken foot at the Beach Ball Classic on Dec. 28, the Cardinals have won four out of five, with the games decided by an average margin of six points.
“That’s a tough stretch, to play the Beach Ball championship, come back, play at Henry Clay on Friday and play Trinity here on Saturday, then go to Madison Central on Tuesday,” Hicks said. “We’re learning to execute on offense without Michael, and we faced two very good defenses. We miss that presence in there.”
Ethan Dodge scored 17 points to lead No. 2 Trinity (10-5), which has dropped five of seven since University of Louisville signee David Johnson left the lineup with a sprained knee.
Even shy of full strength, SC and Trinity are considered the top teams in the state, and they showed why in the rare regular-season meeting. Neither team led by more than eight points, and each struggled to put it away when given a chance.
After twice falling behind by six points late in the third quarter on Stan Turnier’s third 3-pointer of the night and Hodge’s tip-in, SC closed that chapter with nine unanswered points.
“Coach made us step it up. He told us we needed to pressure their guards,” Stewart said. “He emphasized rebounding a lot, because they were bigger than us.”
Long’s hook, Lorenzo Williams’ 3-point play and Terrin Hamilton’s atonement for his own miss put the Cardinals in front. Kobi Harris converted an in-bounds lob pass from Glenn Covington at the horn for a 41-38 lead.
Scott County extended that run to 17-4 with the help of second-chance hoops by Long and Harris, the latter making it 47-39 with just over three minutes to play.
Hodge and Kolton Rice buried 3-pointers for Trinity down the stretch, forcing Stewart to seal it from the foul line.
“We just found a way to win. We got some points off turnovers, and that really helped,” Hicks said. “We finally guarded them a little bit in the second half, and they got tired legs, but gosh, they can hit threes.”
The Cardinals were 21-for-28 at the stripe Saturday after a 25-for-27 showing the previous night. That efficiency helped them hang on despite a season-low 32.7 percent rate from the field, including just 3-of-18 beyond the arc.
On the plus side, SC forced Trinity into 15 turnovers and out-rebounded the Shamrocks by a baker’s dozen (37-24).
They also limited Turnier, Trinity’s leading scorer aside from Johnson, to nine points on 3-for-6 shooting before he fouled out.
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“We’ve got to rebound by committee and play defense by committee,” Hicks said. “Trinity’s a tough team to do it on, because a guy like Turnier out there, if you leave him open it’s an automatic three. Bryce did a really good job on him the second half.”
Stewart led the Scott County defense with three steals.
He and Long each had seven first-quarter points to rescue SC from a sputtering start and keep Trinity within one, 15-14, after eight minutes.
“We’ve got to be more careful with our shots, because (Moreno is) not there to clean it up for us, so we’ve got to be smart and make the smart play,” Stewart said.
SC took its initial lead of 21-19 when Williams blocked a shot and fired an outlet pass to Long at the 4:45 mark of the second.
Two transition baskets by Stewart helped nurse that lead, but Andrew Brian’s 3-pointer knotted the game at 28 going into the locker room.
The teams played a similarly tense game in the opening round of the March 2018 state tournament. SC won by an almost identical score, 54-53, on Cooper Robb’s 3-pointer with six seconds remaining.
“It was pretty even, so it’s kind of of bragging rights, because we’re 2-0 versus them,” Stewart said.
KAL OAKES can be reached via email at email@example.com.