By Terry Boehmker
NKyTribune sports reporter
Holmes senior guard Laila Johnson made the game-winning shot, but defense was the deciding factor in her team’s 34-33 win over Holy Cross in the championship game of the 35th District girls’ basketball tournament on Thursday at Notre Dame.
Limiting Holy Cross to just one point during the final 11 minutes put the Bulldogs in position to win the game in the closing seconds. Johnson drove into the lane and arched a shot over the outstretched arms of a 6-foot-5 defender that dropped though the net to give her team the one-point lead with 4.5 seconds remaining.
Holmes senior guard Laila Johnson
“Actually, I was pretty nervous,” Johnson said of her daring play. “But I knew there was only a few seconds left and we only had one shot, so I had to take it.”
On the ensuing inbounds play, Holy Cross senior guard Bailee Harney raced up the sideline with a Holmes player beside her every step of the way and lost control of the ball without getting off a final shot.
Both of the district finalists advance to next week’s 9th Region tournament at BB&T Arena, but winning the district means a lot to the Bulldogs and their first-year head coach Greg Ash.
“We lost this (district final) last year so this was our first goal,” Ash said. “We wanted to win district and then we’ll take the region one game at a time.”
Holmes (19-7) won back-to-back 9th Region championships in 2016 and 2017. The starters returning from last year’s team are Johnson, junior guard Kamari Graham and senior forward Tyrah Englemon, who was named most valuable player in this week’s 35th District tournament.
Holmes coach Greg Ash
In the district final, Holy Cross opened the second half with a 8-0 run to take a 32-22 lead with 3:51 left in the third quarter. But the only scoring the Indians did after that was one free throw by Harney with 49 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
In the last 11 minutes of the game, Holy Cross committed five turnovers, went 0-for-8 from the field and missed two free throws.
“We picked up our intensity (on defense),” Johnson said.”We started off slow and had to pick it up, trap and press and bring more pressure to it.”
A 3-point basket by Holmes sophomore guard Adriana Lovell sparked a 10-1 run that cut the Indians’ lead to 33-32. That set the stage for Johnson’ game-winning basket in the lane.
“It was a perfect shot,” coach Ash said. “Her concentration was there, you could see her eyes were on the rim the whole time. She wasn’t shying away from contact. She just followed through and in it went.”
None of the other four girls’ district basketball finals involving local teams were close games. Ryle, Highlands, Simon Kenton and Campbell County all won by double-digit margins on Thursday.
The rest of the district finals will be played Friday. The draw to determine first-round pairings for the 9th Region boys’ and girls’ tournaments is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Holmes High School. Both of those regional tournaments will be played at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena.
HOLMES 11 11 7 5 — 34
HOLY CROSS 13 11 8 1 — 33
HOLMES (19-7): Johnson 4 3 13, Englemon 5 3 14, Beckett 1 0 3, Lovell 1 0 3, Stowers 0 1 1. Totals: 11 7 34
HOLY CROSS (18-12): Crigler 4 0 12, McClendon 2 0 4, Simpson 1 0 2, Thomas 4 2 10, Chames 1 2 4, Harney 0 1 1. Totals: 12 5 33.
3-pointers: HO — Johnson 2, Englemon, Beckett, Lovell. HC — Crigler 4.
Holmes — Tyrah Englemon (MVP), Laila Johnson, Kamari Graham. Holy Cross — Sid Thomas, Olivia Crigler. Beechwood — Jocelyn Stokes. Notre Dame — Kelsey Johnson.
District championship games
32nd DISTRICT AT WALTON-VERONA
Thursday (Girls) — Simon Kenton 55, Walton-Verona 40
Friday (Boys) — Walton-Verona vs. Simon Kenton, 7 p.m.
33rd DISTRICT AT RYLE
Thursday (Girls) — Ryle 71, Conner 44
Friday (Boys) — Cooper vs. Ryle, 7 p.m.
34th DISTRICT AT LUDLOW
Friday (Girls) — St. Henry vs. Dixie Heights, 6 p.m.
Friday (Boys) — St. Henry vs. Dixie Heights, 8 p.m.
35th DISTRICT AT TWO SITES
Thursday (Girls) — Holmes 34, Holy Cross 33
Friday (Boys) — Covington Catholic vs. Holy Cross, 7 p.m. at Holmes
36th DISTRICT AT HIGHLANDS
Thursday (Girls) — Highlands 47, Newport Central Catholic 31
Friday (Boys) — Newport vs. Newport Central Catholic, 7 p.m.
37th DISTRICT AT CAMPBELL COUNTY MIDDLE SCHOOL
Thursday (Girls) — Campbell County 67, Scott 41
Friday (Boys) — Campbell County vs. Scott, 7 p.m.