In Kentucky, basketball is religion and Rupp Arena is the cathedral where every native son aspires to cap his high school basketball season in triumph.
Schools evaluate the season’s success based on whether or not they travel to Lexington and get to make the four-inch step up onto the flood of Rupp Arena. Only 16 teams get to achieve that dream every year.
Unlike 48 other states, Kentucky doesn’t have a class system to crown their king of the hardwood. Big or small, private or public school, it doesn’t matter, the “Davids” and “Goliaths” compete for the state’s only championship at the KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 State Basketball Tournament.
It’s the closest you’ll get to a real-life Hoosiers.
It’s basketball in the Bluegrass.
There’s a contrast among competitors every year with powerhouse programs around Lexington, Louisville and near the Cincinnati area being featured as well as rural schools who seem to bring the whole town with them.
No school personifies the latter moreso than Estill County’s trip to the 2018 state tournament. In the history of the school and the tournament, Estill County had never been to the state tournament. But after an overtime victory in the 14th regional final, the rural community finally got to see their local school make the trip to Lexington.
“Every group that comes through has this goal of getting to Rupp Arena and we did it,” Estill county guard and all-time leading scorer Caleb Bonny said. “We accomplished something no one else has accomplished. These guys mean the world to me and this county means the world to me.”
Bonny and company’s trip to Rupp Arena will be a source of pride within the small town community for generations just like it does for the other teams in the tournament and for those who have come before them and even won it all.
To this day, Kentuckians know the story of the little Carr Creek team that won it all in 1956 and can tell you about the epic battles Clay County had in the 1980s. Stories unfold at barbershops and at the local diners long after those high school boys turn into men. Kids reenact past Sweet 16 moments at the hoops installed over their driveway and envision having their own stories one day.
“We’ve dreamt about this since we were young,” Estill County senior Andrew Doty said. “That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot of people here that I had never seen at a ball game. They just came out to support us and it means a lot.”
For Estill County, the trip was short but memorable, making history. An Estill County student even hit a half-court shot, winning big scholarship dollars.
They would lose to Corbin 50-40. The victors weren’t the Cinderella story, and they didn’t enjoy the Rupp-wide swell of fan support, but they were living their own fantasy.
“It’s a dream come true to play at Rupp Arena,” Corbin forward Chase Sanders said. “Growing up as a Kentucky fan, you watch all of the players who go and play and it’s just a dream come true.”
After losing in the regional championship last season, the Redhounds were admittedly heartbroken and saw this season as their best opportunity to get back to the state tournament with it being the senior season of their star player, Andrew Taylor.
Taylor, a Furman commit and the third leading scorer in Kentucky high school basketball history, wears No. 21 and has “Psalm 21” on his socks. Faith and basketball go hand in hand sometimes when you’re trying to stay the course and buy in to the message that what you’re doing in October will lead to the glory of March. Corbin has every intention of playing spoiler in the tournament against juggernauts awaiting them later and trust that their head coach Tony Pietrowski, who played in the 1991 state tournament for Corbin, can guide them to it.
The distinction was clear in the day’s second game. Scott County (35-1) and Trinity (30-4) weren’t just happy to be there. They were in it to win it. It wasn’t an honor just to be nominated. Scott County is a program that has made a habit of getting to Rupp and has two state championships and three runner-up finishes. Trinity, a private school, won a state championship in 2012.
Although the two programs were considered two of the top three best teams in the state tournament, the random drawing for regions paired them in the first round causing some fans to further push to seed the teams to get the best championship possible.
Rich with division one talent on each side,
both teams lived up to the hype and produced an incredible finish. Down 51-53 in the closing seconds, Scott County guard and UNC-Charlotte commit Cooper Robb hit a 3-pointer that became the game-winner and kept the No. 1 ranked Cardinals’ quest for a championship alive.
If the drama on the court wasn’t enough, the storyline that follows Corbin and Scott County’s wins took it up a notch. Scott County head coach Billy Hicks —the winning-est coach in Kentucky high school basketball history —used to coach Corbin…and Pietrowski.
“The first time I coached in this building, Tony Pietrowski was my point guard. This is a special young man. Corbin is a very good basketball team and very well coached. Corbin will always be a very special place to me. I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if it weren’t for Corbin. It is a little special but heck, how can you make the tournament any more special than it is?”
Hicks’ skepticism of being able to make Kentucky’s state tournament even more special is understood. It’s a tall task. But it always gets sweeter. Locals carry the tales until the end of time. Players become legends and then become fathers. They will take their sons to Lexington for the annual Sweet 16 and share the glory.
The cycle will continue as long as there’s a basketball and a hoop in Kentucky. And regardless of winning or losing, these players and fans will carry this with them for the rest of their lives.
After all, it’s basketball in the Bluegrass.
Corbin will play Scott County in the quarterfinals of the state tournament on Friday, March 16, 2018 at noon.
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