RIVER RAT: Sunday finals leads to more exciting Sweet 16

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River Rat

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

When the Kentucky High School Athletic Association released its schedule for the boys’ Sweet 16, I was skeptical at first about the idea of splitting up the finals and semifinals.

Until this year, the Sweet 16 would culminate with the semifinals on Saturday morning and the finals later that night. A scheduling conflict with Rupp Arena — Kentucky was hosting Florida in its regular season finale at noon Saturday — necessitated the first-ever Sunday afternoon Sweet 16 championship, preceded by the semifinals on Saturday night.

What resulted in this historic event were three games decided by a grand total of nine points, with Madison Central prevailing in Sunday’s title game over Ballard, 65-64, on Ken-Jah Bosley’s game-winning three in the final seconds.

It ranked as one of the most exciting championship games I’ve ever seen at the Sweet 16, right up there with Holmes’ double-overtime win over Central in the 2009 title game.  Full disclosure — I did not see Christian County’s 2OT win over Rowan County. I’ll get to that shortly.

Since I switched from news to sports a little more than a decade ago, I’ve attended the Sweet 16 every year, hitting as many games as possible while still getting some regular work done. It’s just a great event, and an opportunity for me to visit with old friends, some of whom I only see that one time a year.

A must each year is seeing the semifinals, which I find almost always delivers more thrills and chills than the finals. It’s not uncommon to find me dragging my sorry behind to Lexington those Saturday mornings, usually on very little sleep.

My first year back to the Sweet 16 in 2004 after several years away found me watching from courtside for Mason County-Scott County in overtime, and a just-as-thrilling 62-58 win by Warren Central over Covington Catholic in the semifinals.

A problem I noticed that year, however, was that with the first game (10 a.m. tipoff) that morning going into overtime, the second game — which was scheduled to tip off at 11:30 a.m. — didn’t get under way until more than an hour later, and it was nearly 3 p.m. by the time I got out of Rupp after all the postgame press conference and such were complete.

That left the kids from Warren Central coming back with barely five hours of recovery time before having to play again. The Dragons won that year, 66-56, denying Mason County and Chris Lofton back-to-back titles. There were a number of exciting plays — most notably the storied Lonnell DeWalt dunk that I was right underneath the basket for — but that the overall quality of play wasn’t that great.

Same thing happened next year, with South Laurel surviving an overtime thriller in the semifinals over PRP then turning around later that night to top Warren Central in a relatively ho-hum 70-59 championship.

It was an emerging trend (at least to me) that led to me skipping the finals the next year (J’town’s 61-48 win over Apollo in 2006), instead spending Saturday night watching the NCAA tourney games with friends at one of the downtown Lex hotel bars.

Since then, I’ve gone to five of the past seven finals, but haven’t missed the semifinals once. During that time, two of the games I attended were bona-fide thrillers, including Madison Central this year and Holmes in double-overtime in 2009. But more and more, I find it easier to skip the finals, something I regretted in 2011 with Christian County and the Anthony Hickey show, but something I totally did not regret last year with Trinity’s 18-point drilling of Scott County.

My theory, that the finals are rarely as good a quality as the semifinals, was confirmed when I went and examined the final margins for the winning teams in the semifinals and finals. I went back from 2012 to 1998, a span of 15 tournaments whose information was available online (couldn’t consult the program this year, because the KHSAA didn’t print one, a cost-saving decision that is very unpopular among fans and folks who use them for reference, such as myself). During that span, I’ve found that the margin of victory for semifinals games is 7.7 points, while during the finals that margin swells to 12.4 points. A lot of blowouts in there, to be sure.

This year, we got one of the most exciting championship games ever, with Madison Central coming back after being 16 points down, and the overall quality of play from both teams was much better than what we see in many years (Christian County and Holmes’ OT wins notwithstanding).

A lot of that has to do with the tight turnaround between the semifinals and finals, as players come out for the finals not well-rested and playing mostly on emotion. I can’t prove it, of course, but I feel as though Madison Central wouldn’t have had anything left in the tank for a comeback under the old Saturday morning semis/Saturday evening finals format. That overnight rest makes a difference.

The Saturday morning semifinals, because of the early start time, are often poorly attended relative to Friday’s quarterfinals and Saturday’s championships. This year’s Saturday night semifinals was one of the best attended that I recall in years, and while having nearby teams such as Montgomery County and Madison Central in it undoubtedly played a part, a lot more casual fans not rooting for any particular team also showed up.

I don’t know if the Saturday semifinals/Sunday finals is something that will be a one-time thing (the rental bill for Rupp Arena is not cheap) or the new norm, but count me as an advocate of splitting up the finals and semifinals in the name of better quality hoops.