Photos: At Long Last, Newport Catholic Reigns Again in the 9th Region
For the first time since 2000, Newport Central Catholic is headed to Rupp Arena and the Kentucky Sweet 16.
It has been a long decade and a half, with most recent years marred by near misses, great seasons cut short in the brutal 9th Region that has been dominated by Holmes and Covington Catholic in the postseason.
In 2015, the Thoroughbreds were upset in the first round by an upstart Holmes team. Cov Cath knocked them out in the 2014 semifinals. 2013 saw New Cath win 30 games but lose in the first round of the 9th. They were close in 2012, running all the way to the finals, only to be knocked off by Boone County.
2016 was to be different despite the fact that New Cath once again found itself being stared down by the Colonels of Covington Catholic, winners of 17 consecutive games, the #1-ranked team in Kentucky, and in the 9th Region finals for the fourth consecutive year, winners of back-to-back regional crowns, and two seasons removed from the state championship.
It was a fast-paced and physical game, but when the final buzzer sounded at BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University, Newport Central Catholic had won 52-47.
"This is the biggest win in the history of the school," said Ron Dawn, New Cath's head coach.
He can thank the biggest guy on the floor: senior Ben Weyer, who was named Most Valuable Player of the 9th Region tournament and who scored 22 points and blocked 7 shots.
"We beat a hell of a team tonight, and I mean they are so good," Dawn said. "They are number one in the state for a reason."
Midway through the first half it looked like New Cath (28-4) was going to cruise to a title. Fresh off a rout of a talented Holy Cross team in the semifinals, the 'Breds bolted out to an 18-7 lead. But Covington Catholic (28-7) showed poise and guts throughout the contest and junior guard Cole Vonhandorf led the rallying cry, knocking down 7 straight points and pulling the Colonels within 1, 21-20, with three minutes left in the half.
A quick basket by sophomore guard C.J. Frederick, his only points on the night, gave Cov Cath its first lead. The Colonels took a 24-23 lead to the locker room at halftime.
The pace picked up in the second half and New Cath's Brennan Hall lit up, adding 15 points to his team's column on the night, including a pair of big 3's.
The 'Breds led by 4, 37-33, at the end of the third quarter.
Cov Cath would not go down quietly. Despite facing a deficit as big as 8 points late in the fourth, the Colonels were able to get as close as 3 points down, powered by Vonhandorf, who scored a game-high 25, including a crucial 3-point play with just under a minute in the game.
One the ensuing possession, New Cath's Weyer was fouled on a drive to the basket, and hit one of two free throws, making it 51-47 with under thirty seconds left. The game looked over when Covington Catholic, on the next possession, turned the ball over.
New Cath promptly returned the favor when Weyer was called for travelling in the backcourt, giving the ball back to Cov Cath with 21 ticks on the clock.
But nothing would fall for the Colonels and Newport Central Catholic was able to hold on and win, 52-47.
"They put so much into this. You don't want this to be the finale," Dawn said. "I just want to tell them how proud I am and how appreciative I am. They made my job easy."
Newport Central Catholic will play Wednesday, March 16, at 1:30 p.m. at Rupp Arena in the first round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament. The Thoroughbreds will play the winner of Region 7 which will be determined on Wednesday night in a game that features Louisville powerhouses Trinity and Saint Xavier.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Photos by RCN's Brian Frey