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NEW CASTLE – As he spoke with a small gathering of reporters just outside the Anderson County locker room, Glen Drury's face cracked with the hint of an ironic smile.
He, along with Anderson County players could think of the what-might-have-been. What might have happened had Will Ruggles not been seated next to Drury, the result of a broken fibula suffered five nights earlier.
Maybe even what-might-have-been if Anderson had simply hit free throws.
If. If. If.
None changed the reality that South Oldham had just ended Anderson County's reign over the Eighth Region boys' basketball teams with a 61-48 win in the first round of the regional tournament at Henry County High School last Wednesday night.
The Dragons clearly earned the victory, hitting 27-of-38 free throws and somehow making plays even when the circumstances suggested the play could not be made. Drury was quick to note that South Oldham had not built a 26-5 record by coincidence or luck.
“Give South Oldham a lot of credit,” Drury said. “They have a veteran ball club.”
Yet, one had to also think about how it seemed little more than two years ago how the second week of March 2010 could have been a time of celebrating three straight Eighth Region titles. Instead, the memories, incredible ones at that, will focus on 2009.
Drury noted such to a Louisville-based writer. “Two years ago, C.J. (Penny, a two-time regional Player of the Year) got mono just before the regional tournament,” Drury said. “Last year, we had some things happen (a starter sick, another starter and a top reserve with a death in the family) but we were still able to win it.”
Drury, and those around the Bearcat camp would loved to have had Ruggles in the lineup last Friday. We will never know just how decisive his absence was against South Oldham. With him in the lineup, South had beaten Anderson 69-48 less than six weeks before. That night, Anderson simply played awful in the second half.
That can't be said about last Wednesday.
Taking a cue from their coach, who was animated as ever and pouring every bit of his enormous heart into willing his team into what would have been a mild upset, Anderson jumped to a 6-0 lead inside the first two minutes. Anderson's defense, the part of the game that measures blue-collar grit more than athletic gift, had already forced two turnovers and a terrible shot out of the Dragons.
“I told the kids that Anderson was playing much harder than we were and we were going to have to match that intensity,” said South Oldham coach Steve Simpson, who quickly signaled for a timeout.
Drury, however, knew his team would be hard-pressed for 30 more minutes.
“That was nothing. 6-0 is nothing. We needed to execute for the entire game,” he said.
But without their floor general, Anderson could not keep up.
“Will does so many things for us,” Drury had said repeatedly through a season that ended at 17-8. “He does little things that a lot of people don't even think about, like just getting the ball in bounds.”
Those prophetic words had been spoken nearly three weeks earlier. Last Wednesday, the Bearcats were whistled for two 5-second calls. They were not able to get the ball in bounds.
Drury had inserted 6-footer Ben Walker into Ruggles' spot in the lineup and 6-3 Taylor Trimble, who had started on-and-off through the season, was back as a starter in an effort to get the Bearcats some offensive punch to aid Jacob Russell. “Taylor has improved as much as anybody over the last four years,” Drury would say.
But it was not enough. After Casey Jackson and Brice Jewitt bagged a pair of 3-pointers, South Oldham led 7-6. Anderson battled and battled, yet the scoreboard did not lie.
The Bearcats never led again.
They tied things two more times, the last coming when Russell got free for a layup to make it 16-16 with 5:27 to go before halftime.
Even though Anderson was dominating the backboards – South Oldham had precious few offensive rebounds – the Bearcats could not get enough of their own shots to go down.
They hit just 14-of-32 two-point attempts (43.8 percent), a rate that was compounded by the fact that several easy shots teased the senses, then fell off the rim. Russell would end up leading Anderson with 22 points and the Bearcats got a huge lift from junior Erik Newton, who scored 12.
However, Newton picked up his fourth foul just before halftime. Drury lamented not getting the junior out of the lineup at the time. “That was probably a mistake on my part,” Drury said. “Erik had a great game for us. We felt like we had to have him.”
As strange as it migh sound to call the defending regional champions an underdog, Anderson was just that and playing the role well. The Bearcats clawed to within one possession at 31-28, when South Oldham's Jewitt launched a 3-pointer that bounded high off the rim.
Anderson might have been dominating the glass but the one the Bearcats did not get was the beginning of the end. Jewitt's miss bounded high in the air and teammate Carson Fields swooped in like a mini-Superman for the tipin.
“It was a huge play at the time,” Simpson said. “Carson is a gifted athlete and has made several plays like that this year.”
Drury could only sigh, then shake his head. “We missed a blockout. That was when they started their run,” he said. “That was a game-changer.”
On the scoreboard, it was just two points. But in the immeasurable momentum factor, it was the dagger piercing Anderson's skin. The Bearcats were never closer.
“This was a game we had to execute perfect,” Drury said. “I thought there were times we were really good, but we weren't perfect.”
Anderson hurt itself with silly fouls and its own inability to convert on its own freebies.
“They did a very good job of taking the ball to the basket and drawing fouls,” Drury said of South Oldham. “But if we had hit our foul shots (8-of-19), this game would have gone down to the wire. “
There were few tears shed openly. It was almost as if Anderson had resigned itself to fate when Ruggles went down. Instead, there were stunned looks of disappointment and blank stares, perhaps thinking about the what-ifs.
Over the last four years, Anderson had won 82 games. The team did not reach 20 wins in 2010, something attributable to both weather (four games were canceled because of snow, three of which Anderson would have been favored to win) and one of the most rugged schedules in recent memory.
“I told the kids I was proud of them,” Drury said. “They accomplished a lot considering the type of schedule we played. Every team we lost to was ranked at one time or another.”
As defending regional champs, Anderson had been in every team's sights. “You have the target on your back,” Drury said.
Then, with the slight grin that captured the disappointment of the moment along with the satisfaction of one of the most successful runs in Anderson basketball history, Drury reflected.
“I told the seniors that we have been on a magic carpet ride the last four years,” he said.
But chances are, the Bearcats would like to have had a genie to give them better luck when the games matter the most.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.