During a highly-anticipated rematch of the 2022 KHSAA State Championship Game, the George Rogers Clark Cardinals (30-6) took on the Warren Central Dragons (36-1) on Saturday night at Rupp Arena to determine who would be named the state champion for 2023.
In a reversal of one year prior, when GRC defeated Warren Central 43-42, the Cards came out on the short end.
Despite a valiant second-half comeback attempt that saw them narrow what appeared to be a convincing 16-point Dragon lead down to two points in the final minute, the Cards fell to Warren Central 64-60.
“It was a battle. I’m proud of our guys”, said Head Coach Josh Cook. “We talk about playing with heart. That’s kind of our message for what we just experienced in twenty four hours of trying to play three basketball games at the level we played at.”
After defeating Lyon County Friday night and Frederick Douglass Saturday afternoon, the Cards took to the court.
Scoring first, they jumped in front of the Dragons 6-4 in the first quarter.
However, an 8-0 run gave Warren Central the lead.
The first quarter ended with a score of 18-12 in favor of the Dragons.
In the second quarter, the Dragons continued producing on offense while the Cards battled to keep the game close.
In a big play for Warren Central, Izayiah Villafuerte delivered on a 3-pt. shot at the buzzer to give the team a 36-27 lead heading into halftime.
“We do that once a week…you never know when you will need one of those”, said Warren Central Head Coach Will Unseld. “We knew they were [going to] make a run. [They] have special players…we wanted enough cushion where we could handle the run.”
In the second half, the Dragons seemed to go on the first run.
Led by 10 points in the quarter from Kade Unseld – one of three Dragons to score 17 altogether – Warren Central built what many might have considered an insurmountable 48-32 advantage.
However, the Cards hadn’t obtained back-to-back 30-win seasons without understanding how to handle adversity.
Led by Jerone Morton – who finished with a game-high 23 points – the Cards narrowed the deficit to ten by the end of the period.
In the fourth quarter, they would get even closer.
Twice, on three-point baskets from Morton and Reshaun Hampton, the Cards brought the deficit to just three points.
Though Warren Central would extend their lead, the Cards kept fighting.
After back-to-back layups by Sam Parrish, their deficit was cut to just two points with twelve seconds remaining.
Needing to foul, the Cards sent Unseld to the free-throw line.
To GRC’s dismay, his two free throw attempts were good and gave Central a 64-60 lead.
A late three-point attempt by the Cards fell short, ending the game and season.
The Cards, who went 71 years between their first state championship in 1951 and their second in 2022, came close to winning their third just one year later.
In the postgame interview, much credit was given by Coach Cook to members of the team.
Particularly, departing seniors Morton, Sam Parrish, and Trent Edwards were recognized for their contribution to the program that has seen four straight 10th Region championships, a state championship in 2022, runner-up in 2023, and Elite Eight appearance in 2021.
“I’m [going to] miss them because they’re unique in their own way and I love who they are”, he said. “When you learn to be a part of that and you learn as a coach, they become your family. I’ll miss them. I’m forever grateful to them.”
Jerone Morton, a Morehead State commit, last year’s MVP of the state tournament, and the all-time leading scorer in GRC boys basketball history, spoke.
“I’m just thankful for what God gave me, the ability he gave me, and for Coach Cook [and] my teammates”, he said. “It just doesn’t feel real that it’s over…I’m glad and happy that we’re here.”
En route to the KHSAA State Championship Game, the Cards defeated Mason County in the 10th Region Championship Game, as well as North Laurel and Lyon County in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
All three teams have 2023 Kentucky Mr. Basketball nominees.
The Cards also defeated Frederick Douglass, who entered their matchup in the Final Four on a 30-game winning streak.
In addition to Morton, Parrish, and Edwards, Tyleik Maxwell and Kareem Guerrant also graduate.
Reshaun Hampton will return at guard, while reserves such as Eli Craig and J.P. Gaines are also set to remain on the roster.
Cook hopes that – with this year’s team having shown the way – learning how to overcome pressure and the challenges associated with this season will be passed on.
“They keep fighting. They keep fighting for each other”, he said. “I’m forever proud of that because, in the end, that’s what life’s about. Show some toughness, stick together, [and] do something bigger than yourself.”