Cov Cath Gets By Holmes, Repeats as 9th Region Champs
As far as rivalries in Northern Kentucky go, it doesn't get better than Covington Catholic and Holmes basketball. The two schools have locked horns nine times over the last three years, and have appeared in three straight 9th Region Championships against one another. Just like last year, though, the Colonels battled past a determined Holmes team in a packed Bank of Kentucky Center and won the 9th Region Championship, 45-37.
“In the end, our guys just hunkered down,” Cov Cath coach Scott Ruthsatz said after winning his second straight 9th Region Championship. “We told them after the first that we would need to be much more aggressive. We established that early in the second half and after that we were able to get them to miss shots, get out in transition and get some easy baskets.”
The theme of this tournament was defense, as the tenacity and hustle by every team involved had raised with its competition. For Cov Cath, more specifically, the theme has been zone defense because each team they've played in the 9th Region tournament decided that it was the smartest approach. That was no different on Tuesday night against Holmes.
The Bulldogs typically play man-to-man defense thanks to their incredible quickness on the parameter that often keeps guards from penetrating, but they followed the lead of both Newport and St. Henry and played a 2-3 zone. Coach Ruthsatz said yesterday that his team had to be more aggressive attacking the zone and not settle for jump shots, and when they did, they were better.
But it took defense of their own to really nail down a scrappy Bulldogs team that had previously taken out considerably bigger teams in New Cath and Dixie to get to that final game.
Both teams looked tight out of the gates. The energy of the big crowd—complete with a distinct Holmes student section—seemed to add to the stage and it seemed there was a case of nerves that effected both teams early on.
The one player who looked less rattled than the rest, though, was sophomore Cole VonHandorf, who lived up to the challenge all evening, finishing with a game-high 17 points and en route to winning the 9th Region Tournament MVP award. VonHandorf said he took a page from the previous year's Cov Cath star guard, Nick Ruthsatz.
“I just learned last year from Nick when he took over our team. So with him graduating, I knew I had to take over the team. We were down most of the game, and I figured my team needed me to step up, so I got my shots and it ended up working out,” VonHandorf said after the game.
He started out with five quick points and he and senior forward Bo Schuh accounted for all but two first-half points for the Colonels. Yet while VonHandorf could score, he did show discomfort in other ways as he turned the ball over four times before halftime.
One of the ways that Holmes stuck around and even led for long stretches of the second half was their advantage when battling on the glass. Typically, the Bulldogs rely on their backcourt starters of senior James Bolden and junior Markel McClendon to carry them down the stretch, and because of their struggles shooting throughout the game, the Bulldogs probably didn't have the firepower in the end, but the bigs underneath really showed up for Holmes coach Mike Listerman and afforded the team a host of second-chance opportunities.
Senior center Rod Avery gave a hard-nosed effort in his last game with the team as his pogo-stick leaping ability allowed him to get dunks on putbacks, sneak behind the Cov Cath zone for ally-oops and points on hard drives to the rim. Avery finished with a team-high 14 points in limited minutes because of foul trouble.
Holmes did a good job staying out of foul trouble, in general, especially in the first half where they picked up only two and zero in the first quarter. Unfortunately, both of those fouls were on Avery and it took him out for the last couple of minutes of the first half.
Center Brandon Moore also gave the Bulldogs a spark off the bench by being big and tree-like in the lane, getting offensive boards or at least a hand in there to allow his teammate to do the same. The reserve big man often does not get many minutes, but he gave a gritty performance against the defending state champs.
The problem on the night for Holmes was their inability to knock down the big shots they had made an evening before against Dixie. McClendon and Bolden combined to shoot 6-32 from the field in the game and in the end was a big reason for their undoing.
Throughout the third quarter, it didn't look like that kind of a shooting night would end up bothering the Bulldogs. They led at halftime, 22-19, and kept a small lead for all of the third quarter and some of the beginning of the fourth, but then the Colonels began to take their coach's advice and attack the zone in the paint.
First it was Schuh for a turnaround in the post that tied the score at 33 each. Bolden then came down the other end and launched a three. There was contact by his defender on the shot which seemed to have made him miss, but no foul call was given.
Then, with the score tied, of all the players to put the Colonels ahead, it was forward Grant Rhomes with a tip-in that broke the seal late for Cov Cath. The CCH student section went bonkers and the pressure suddenly became huge on the Bulldogs.
“That was his best shot of the year,” Coach Ruthsatz said afterward. “It shows you that we have not given up on any of our kids. In the end, they know we believe in them and they believe in us and that's what we got tonight.”
Avery came back and missed on a baseline runner and Schuh responded with a clean dunk on a classic pick-and-roll play, putting the Colonels up four with under three minutes remaining. Holmes was forced to foul after that and found themselves with one last gasp in the final minute down by three. Cov Cath had the ball and looked to have found an open layup, but Avery patrolled the paint and swatted the ball against the backboard. The problem for Holmes was that the ball ricocheted back to Cov Cath guard Cooper Theobald who was fouled and made both of his free-throws.
With that chance gone, the Bulldogs' hopes of playing in the state tournament in Lexington next week vanished and they finished their season at 23-9. For the Colonels, they return to the place where they took the state by storm a season ago, winning the KHSAA Sweet 16 Tournament and becoming state champions. Their repeat bid begins on Wednesday, March 18, against Campbell County at 6:30 p.m. Cov Cath is currently 29-5.
“Last year was a big surprise,” VonHandorf said about the differences between this year and last year. “This year it was kind of expected of us to go back down to state. Our seniors leadership is incredible and we couldn't do it without our coaches.”
- Story by Bryan Burke, associate editor/Photos by Brian Frey, RCN photographer