With 16 minutes left in the regular season, the Ballard High School boys basketball team hit rock bottom.
On Feb. 18, the Bruins entered the locker room at Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis down 39-28. The night before, Jeffersonville handed the visiting Bruins an 83-64 loss, and to make matters worse, coach Chris Renner was ejected in the first half of the Brebeuf game.
“I don’t know if we could have reached a lower point,” Renner said.
That’s the thing about hitting the bottom. There’s only one way left to go, and that’s up.
In the Bruins locker room, the seniors gathered together and decided that was enough. The Bruins came out refocused and re-energized in the second half, scoring 56 points in those last 16 minutes to beat the Braves 84-64.
The Brebeuf game started the six-game winning streak the Bruins will ride into Rupp Arena on Thursday, when they face Taylor County at 1:30 p.m. in the first round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16.
Renner said he was proud of the way the players responded in the second half against the Braves, and after that game he noticed how the team’s chemistry and confidence both improved. Senior Jamil Wilson, who led the Bruins with 22 points in that win, said he couldn’t remember what was said exactly in the locker room, but he remembered the message clearly.
“We just stepped our leadership up,” he said. “We really knew with coach Renner being gone, somebody else had to step up to the leadership role. We came out and that second half was probably one of the best halves we played this season.”
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On the ride home after the game, the players communicated with each other through a group chat application to discuss what worked in that game. The messages led to a players-only meeting in the locker room, where the players got locked in mentally.
“We really set our minds to it,” Wilson said. “We knew we had a chance to do big things and get to state and have a chance to win it.”
The Bruins boast one of the state’s top offenses as their 75.3-point scoring average is 15th-best. However, it’s their defense that has highlighted this run to Rupp.
Before the streak, the Bruins allowed an average of 63.3 points per game. Over the last six contests, they’ve held opponents to just 50 per game. That includes holding Trinity, the No. 3 team in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, to just 36 percent shooting in a 57-41 Seventh Region semifinal victory.
It’s not as if the Bruins (28-6) were a mediocre team before the Brebeuf game. They’re currently No. 6 in the Litkenhous Ratings, and three of their losses came in a five-week stretch against No. 5 Fern Creek. In those three games, the Bruins dealt with injuries to either Wilson or Clivonte Patterson. Both senior stars suffered high ankle sprains and missed a total of 11 games combined. Another starter, Marshon Ford, missed a couple games with back problems.
“We had about a month’s stretch where we really had to just kind of survive, to be honest with you,” Renner said. “When you’re in the Seventh Region, you don’t get a whole lot of room to breathe in terms of the schedule.”
Renner acknowledges Ballard, which makes its 17th appearance in the state tournament and seeks its fourth state title, may not have the same type of talent or physical size that he’s had in some of his other state tournament teams. However, he believes the team has one strength it can use to its advantage.
“I don’t think there’s any team in the state tournament that quite has the overall team speed and quickness we have,” he said.
Bowling Green coach D.G. Sherrill, whose team squeaked out a 69-67 win over the Bruins in the King of the Bluegrass, said the Bruins’ ability to play that way for 32 minutes makes them dangerous.
“You can’t ever take a breath in that game,” he said “You can’t ever rest. … The way they come at you, it’s not in waves, it’s continuous.”