Mike Szabo rolled the dice and won in a big, big way.
Facing the state’s top-ranked boys’ basketball team in Ballard High School, the Trinity coach scrapped his season-long substitution patterns and let his team’s fate rest in the hands of five guys.
He wasn’t sure it would work.
“I didn’t know it because I hadn’t seen it yet,” Szabo said. “They proved it.”
With the starters playing 25 of the game’s 32 minutes, Trinity still appeared the fresher team at the end and rallied for a 59-58 victory over Ballard in Tuesday’s Seventh Region championship game at Valley.
Tre’ Ivory, Daniel Ramser, Michael Stafford, Craig Owens and Raymond Spalding rarely left the court as the No. 2 Shamrocks (29-5) won their second regional title in three years.
“I kept preaching, ‘Leave nothing in the tank. We are not getting tired,’ ” Szabo said. “We didn’t play a lot of guys tonight, didn’t sub a whole lot. We said, ‘You’re just going to have to do it. You’re going to have to dig down deeper than you ever have.’ “
Ramser scored 14 points and Ivory and Stafford both had 12 as Trinity avenged two regular-season losses to Ballard (29-6). The Shamrocks will face Third Region champion Owensboro (21-10) at 1:30 p.m. next Wednesday in a first-round Sweet 16 game at Rupp Arena.
Ramser, who finished 4 of 7 from 3-point range, admitted the Shamrocks’ victory would be considered an upset by most fans.
“People will look at it that way, I know, but we had confidence all the way through the game,” he said.
With future coach Rick Pitino watching, University of Louisville signee Quentin Snider had 19 points, five rebounds and five assists to lead the Bruins. Jalen Perry pitched in 15 points, and Butler signee Kelan Martin added nine points, seven rebounds, four steals and three blocks.
It was another gut-wrenching season finale for Snider, Martin and Ballard’s other seniors, who lost as sophomores to eventual state champion Trinity 58-55 in the regional semifinals and as juniors to Madison Central 65-64 in the state final.
“Trinity earned it and give them credit, but I hurt for our kids,” coach Chris Renner said. “We might have deserved to lose this ballgame, but I feel like we didn’t deserve to lose a chance to go to Rupp Arena.”
Ramser and Jax Levitch combined to hit five 3-pointers in the first quarter as Trinity built a 23-17 advantage, but Ballard rallied to lead 35-34 at halftime and 46-45 after three.
Perry’s reverse dunk with 4:55 left gave Ballard a 56-50 edge, and the Bruins missed two chances to extend it.
Stafford used his athleticism to rally the Shamrocks, driving the lane twice for baskets. The second gave Trinity a 57-56 lead with 1:24 left. Both Stafford and Szabo credited assistant coach James Torra with a solid scouting report.
“We knew we’d had success taking them off the dribble,” Stafford said. “The coaches told us to really attack this time.”
After Snider tied it with a free throw, Owens hit two to give the Shamrocks a 59-57 edge with 25.6 seconds remaining. Snider again hit 1 of 2 free throws to get the Bruins within 59-58 with 12.4 seconds left, and Stafford missed the front end of a one-and-one with 11.6 seconds remaining.
Snider drove to the basket and was fouled with 2.9 seconds left, but it was only Trinity’s sixth team foul, meaning no free throws. After a Ballard timeout, Snider threw a lob pass in the lane to Perry. His tip attempt hit the front of the rim, and the clock ran out.
Renner credited Trinity but also questioned the foul situation at the end.
“Here we are at the end of a physical ballgame and we’re not in the bonus,” he said. “That was probably the biggest deciding factor.”
The victory gave Trinity its third regional title, going with wins in 2004 and 2012. The 2012 squad was ranked No. 1 and went on to win the state title.
Szabo said winning as the underdog provided a special feeling.
“When you’re No. 1 everyone expects you to win it … and it’s almost like a sigh of relief when you do it,” he said. “When you can beat somebody that good and you know it’s going to take just a tremendous effort to do it, that’s really satisfying.”
Dr. Rudy J. Ellis All-Tournament Team
Raymond Spalding, Craig Owens, Tre’ Ivory (Trinity); Quentin Snider, Kelan Martin (Ballard); P.J. Scott (Male); Dwayne Sutton (Manual); Nicholas Kratholm (Waggener); Robert Shaw (St. Xavier); Austin Howard (Eastern); Devin Firman (Central).
– Dow 4, Martin 9, Snider 19, Perry 15, Kovacevic 6, Douglas 5.Ballard (29-6)
– Ivory 12, Levitch 6, Ramser 14, Schmidt 3, Stafford 12, Owens 8, Spalding 4.Trinity (29-5)
– Snider 2, Perry 3, Kovacevic 2; Levitch 2, Ramser 4, Schmidt.3-point goals