While the game itself might not have lived up to the hype, No. 1 Lexington Catholic’s 83-51 blowout win over No. 2 North Laurel on Saturday likely burnished Ben Johnson’s Mr. Basketball credibility and cushioned the Knights’ certain fall from atop the media rankings after their upset loss the night before.
Johnson, a 6-3 senior guard committed to Bellarmine, put the full range of his talents on display against the Jaguars with 31 points, including seven three-pointers, plus seven rebounds, seven assists, four steals and a block. He hit three of those three-pointers in a devastating third quarter in which the Knights (19-1) turned a 42-27 halftime advantage into a 63-36 mountain heading into the final frame.
“This is a huge game. I’ve never seen this much publicity for one high school game in my entire life,” Johnson said. “But we had a good game plan coming into it. We followed it to a tee. Everybody came out and performed well. Can’t complain, you know — it was a great, great day.”
Johnson actually scored one point fewer than he had in the loss to Paul Laurence Dunbar on Friday night, but his teammates all stepped up their efforts on offense and defense against North Laurel.
“I think it was a wake-up call,” Johnson said. “I think it was almost a good thing that we got to beat. We’ve still got the No. 1 seed in the district, so that’s a good thing. Now, we have a loss. Now, we know we can get beat, and we can build from that. Great teams bounce back.”
North Laurel (19-2) suffered its first two losses of the season in this trip to Lexington. Coach Nate Valentine knew that was a possibility and also knew his team needed to be tested.
“We played really well for eight weeks of the season, and we’ve got a lot of young guys and for whatever reason, we just didn’t play well this week,” Valentine said. “We could have played in a lot of other classics and played people and beat them by 40 or 50, but we wanted to come here. … I wanted this to help us get ready for the tournament, and I certainly didn’t anticipate this being the result, but, hopefully, we’ll handle it.”
Standout sophomore Reed Sheppard, the subject of a lot of media attention the last few weeks as the leading scorer in the state and the son of two University of Kentucky basketball greats (Jeff Sheppard and Stacey Reed), scored a team-high 18 points against Lexington Catholic with 10 rebounds. He was a clear focus for the Knights’ defense.
“You look at the defense of Blake Busson and Ryan Russell — while we’d be nowhere without Ben — those two guys turned the game with their defense on Reed Shepard,” Salsman said. Our guys really wore him down, I thought and did a great job of guarding him.”
Russell scored 15 points, including three three-pointers and Salsman praised sophomore Hudson Sparks for playing “the game of his life.” Busson scored eight points off the bench.
Salsman called Sheppard a no-doubt Mr. Basketball for 2023, which also gave him the opportunity to mention his guy.
“I’m at the point now where if (Johnson) doesn’t win Mr. Basketball, I’ll probably never vote again,” Salsman said. “He is such a team leader. He did everything for us today, and he did it in such an efficient way.”
Looking ahead, Lexington Catholic closes out the regular season against Robertson County on Friday before entering the ever-tough 43rd District Tournament the following week where Dunbar and other upset-minded teams await.
“Dunbar has to watch out for Lafayette in the first round, because they took them to overtime. And we’ve got to watch out for LCA, who almost beat us, and Tates Creek,” Salsman said. LCA and Tates Creek must face off to see who gets to play Lexington Catholic in the district semifinals. “We’re going to be really focused on LCA and Tates Creek and making sure we know what we need to do against those guys.”
Ashland Blazer 76, Paul Laurence Dunbar 64: In the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader, the Tomcats got 30 points from point guard Colin Porter and 25 from Cole Villers to notch an impressive sweep of their weekend showcase games in Lexington after toppling North Laurel on Friday night.
Dunbar struggled from the field in the second half, shooting only 33.3 percent as Ashland turned a 33-29 halftime deficit into a lead of as much as 15 points in the fourth quarter. The run included consecutive three-pointers from Villers, Porter and Ethan Sellars to end the third period. Sellars finished with 12 points. Nick Spalding scored 27 and Tim Hall added 15 points for Dunbar.
All ‘A’ Classic
Boys’ finals—St. Henry 74, Clinton County 57: Wyatt Vieth scored 27 points and captured his second straight All “A” Classic MVP Award as the Crusaders defended their small-school state championship in Richmond on Saturday.
Clinton County led by two after a quarter of play and got 19 points from Nick Delk and double figures from Blake Melton and Nick Brown, but it had trouble answering St. Henry blow for blow the rest of the way. Jude Bessler and Cody Teeten added 13 and 11 points, respectively, for St. Henry.
Girls’ finals—Bethlehem 53, Walton-Verona 43: In a rematch of last year’s championship game and what was supposed to be a first-round game two weeks ago, the Banshees defended their All “A” Classic title led by a balanced attack that saw four players reach double figures in scoring.
Ella Thompson and Xaviara Smalley had 12 points each and Amelia Hodges and Carlie Thurmond scored 10 apiece for Bethlehem. Walton-Verona was led by Maggie Buerger’s 14 points and Haylee Neeley’s 12.
Saturday morning’s finals in both the boys’ and girls’ tournaments were part of an entirely new schedule of games after the original tournament had to be canceled because of a snowstorm that hit most of the state last month. Bethlehem and Walton-Verona were originally scheduled to play in the first round, and since they were already in town as the storm hit, they ended up playing it as a regular-season tilt. Bethlehem won that game, as well, 57-37.