Dixie Heights’ Liam Rabe passes out of trouble.
Lakers versus Celtics. Duke versus North Carolina. Cincinnati versus Xavier. And now, Holmes versus Covington Catholic. In terms of great basketball rivalries, the battle between the 35th District’s top two programs is climbing up the list.
The two Northern Kentucky powers will meet up for the third straight year in Tuesday night’s Ninth Region championship. The Bulldogs beat the Colonels 62-60 in 2013, while CovCath pulled out the 56-51 win in last year’s title game.
So far this year, the Colonels have won both matchups, beating the Bulldogs 54-42 during the regular season and 80-53 in the 35th District finals two weeks ago.
“It’s a neighborhood battle,” Holmes coach Mike Listerman said. “They have a good club and they’re well-coached. We have a good club. It should be exciting. There will be a lot of fan interest. I think you’ll see a much different game than you saw (in the district tournament).”
Monday night, the Bulldogs survived an exciting regional semifinal matchup with Dixie Heights, 56-55 at the Bank of Kentucky Center to advance to Tuesday’s championship. Senior guard James Bolden, a West Virginia commit, and classmate Rod Avery led Holmes with 14 points each, but junior guard Markel McClendon proved to be the hero in the end. Bolden eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for his career with his first bucket of the game.
“You win with character,” Listerman said. “We’ve really come together as a team and grown as young men. These kids are buying into the things we want to do as a school system and as a basketball team. They’re working hard in the classroom and trying to be good in the neighborhoods. I really like what this club has done. We’ve come a long way.”
The fourth quarter was eight minutes of thrilling action.
Bolden tied the game at 55-55 with 2:45 to play on a contested three, and then both teams tried to hold for the last shot starting with less than two minutes. Dixie made the decision to come out of its zone and pressure the ball with just over a minute to play and forced a missed shot by McClendon. The Colonels then tried to hold for the last shot on their end, but McClendon redeemed himself by stealing the ball from Dixie’s Austin Schreck and getting fouled with 1.6 seconds to play.
“I knew I had to make a play,” McClendon said. “I switched (defensively) with Brennon Englemon, and then knew (Schreck) was going to use an in-and-out (move). I just put my hand out and got the steal. I was watching him use that move all night.”
McClendon made the first free throw and missed the second, leaving Dixie with one second to go the length of the court, but after a quick timeout, McClendon stole the Colonels’ inbound pass.
“If they were going to sit back in the zone, we would have gone for the last shot,” Listerman said. “But as it was, they came out, so we’re going to play. What I’m proudest of is Markel’s look wasn’t the best of shots, but as a team we go back down the other end and get a stop to get the ball back. Markel made two or three big plays down the stretch.”
The game was close throughout.
The two teams traded baskets throughout the first several minutes, until Nick Niehaus’ three from the top of the key just before the buzzer gave Dixie an 11-8 lead to end the first quarter.
Holmes took the lead back midway through the second quarter on a bucket by Bolden. Bolden only attempted four shots in the first half, but made three of them, including two threes, to lead the Bulldogs with eight points as they took a 25-22 lead into halftime.
Liam Rabe buried a three from the left wing off of a set play on the first possession of the second half to tie the game at 25. That helped spark a 9-2 Dixie run over the first two-plus minutes of the third quarter. Rabe’s steal and layup with 5:45 to play pushed the Colonels’ lead to 31-27 and forced Listerman to call a timeout.
Holmes took the lead back, 36-35, with just over two minutes left in the third thanks to a hustle play by McClendon. After he came from behind to knock the ball away from a Dixie guard and then dive on it, McClendon threw ahead to a teammate to start a fast break that resulted in a tip-in by Avery. However, the Colonels took a 41-40 lead into the fourth quarter thanks to a drive and finish by Drew Moore before the buzzer.
Schreck and fellow senior guard Rabe led Dixie with 13 points each. Senior center Mitchell Bolin pitched in with 12 points and six rebounds, including five on the offensive end.
Holmes received a nice boost from junior guards Englemon and Jordan Daniels as well as senior forward Jason Covington off the bench. The trio combined for 11 points.
“Can’t say enough about our bench,” Listerman said. “They were the difference in the ballgame when you look at points.”
Holmes (23-8) – Bolden 5 0 14, Avery 7 0 14, McClendon 3 1 9, Englemon 2 1 7, Arnold 3 0 6, Daniels 0 2 2, Mullins 1 0 2, Covington 0 2 2. Totals 21 6 56.
Dixie Heights (23-8) – Schreck 2 8 13, Rabe 4 2 13, Bolin 6 0 12, Moore 2 1 5, Isbel 2 0 5, Hedger 1 2 4, Niehaus 1 0 3. Totals 18 13 55.
Halftime: Holmes 25 Dixie 22. 3-Pointers: Holmes 8 (Bolden 4, McClendon 2, Englemon 2), Dixie 6 (Rabe 3, Schreck, Isbel, Niehaus).