Stayin’ Alive!
Lincoln wins state tournament opener

Published 7:54 am Thursday, March 17, 2022

LEXINGTON — For the first time in a long time, the Lincoln County Patriots are staying over at the state tournament.

Lincoln outlasted Jeffersontown on Wednesday to extend its stay at the Boys Sweet 16, scoring six unanswered points in the final minute of a 45-41 victory at Rupp Arena.

The Patriots were in peril after losing a lead that grew to nine points in the first half, but they survived on the strength of a defense that allowed only six points in the fourth quarter.

Jeffersontown came into the tournament shooting 50 percent from the field, but the Chargers shot just 28 percent against a Lincoln defense ranked seventh in the state in points allowed per game.

“We knew they shot the ball really well (and) our kids really did a good job contesting shots,” Lincoln coach Jeff Jackson said. “They got open looks, but most of the shots they took, I felt like we did a good job closing out, getting a hand up and contesting.”

Colton Ralston, the hero of Lincoln’s last-second win in the regional final, buried a deep 3-point shot with 53 seconds remaining to give the Patriots the lead.

Two defensive stops later, Lincoln had secured its second Sweet 16 win in six appearances — and the first since 1975, the school’s inaugural year.

“The feeling of going to the elite eight is totally different,” said guard Jaxon Smith, the only Lincoln player who played in its most recent state tournament appearance in 2019. “It’s very exciting. The first time I got here I didn’t really know what to expect, but this time I came with a real purpose.”

Lincoln (30-7) returns to the Rupp Arena floor at 11 a.m. Friday for a quarterfinal matchup with North Oldham (19-12), which defeated Muhlenberg County 36-32 in its first-round game.

Smith scored 14 points and Ralston added 12 to lead Lincoln in the kind of game they win so frequently.

The Patriots’ defense held J-Town (24-9) to a score that was nine points below its previous low for the season. The Chargers had only 13 baskets and were just 2 for 19 from 3-point range.

“Man, we just couldn’t make shots,” Jeffersontown coach Richard Duncan said. “They had a great defensive game plan. I felt like we had some really good looks and just weren’t able to knock them down tonight.”

It wasn’t Lincoln’s preferred defense, however, that did J-Town in. The Patriots usually rely on a man-to-man defense, but they turned to a 2-3 zone against an opponent that outsized them.

“Our best defense this year has been our man-to-man, but they’re so long and so athletic, and we got in a little bit of foul trouble and we felt like we needed to play some zone,” Jackson said. “The zone was very, very good to us. We were very active out of it with our hands, and we moved our feet and did a good job getting over the screens against their zone offense.”

With its primary rotation reduced to six players by injuries, Lincoln could ill afford foul trouble but had some anyway. Clayton Davis, who scored five of his team’s first 11 points, had three fouls before halftime and Tramane Alcorn, who had six points and a game-high five assists, fouled out with 3:47 to play.

Sophomore Connor Davis played 13 minutes and hit a critical 3-point shot after the Patriots opened the second half with three straight turnovers, and little-used junior Jalen Smith played the final 50 seconds of the first half as Alcorn sat to avoid picking up a third foul.

“I thought Connor and Jalen both came in and gave us some good time,” Jackson said. “We did the things we had to do and the kids came in and really gave us a big lift.”

The Patriots also struggled at the foul line, where they entered the tournament with a 67 percent accuracy rate but were just 13 for 22 overall and 5 for 12 in the second half Wednesday.

They missed seven free throws in a row over 14 minutes, including shots on the front end of a one-and-one on three occasions before Smith and Jackson Sims combined to go 5 for 6 over the final 2:38.

“Missed shots happen. We’ve just got to look to the next play,” Jaxon Smith said. “And in the big moment, if my team needs me I feel like if I go up to the line I can do it.”

Ralston was ready for another big moment as well. The junior whose buzzer-beater gave Lincoln a 42-40 overtime victory over Pulaski County in the 12th Region title game delivered the winning basket for the second consecutive game.

This time it was a 3-point shot. More than 60 percent of his shots this season have come from behind the line, and he was every bit of 3 feet behind the line when he let this one go from the left side.

And unlike his memorable shot in the regional, which resulted from an offensive rebound, this one came on a play called for him.

“We felt like we had gotten some slips on it earlier … and (Jaxon) read the defense really well and made a good pass and he hit a big shot,” Jackson said. “It’s one of Colton’s favorite plays because he gets to shoot the ball.

“He spends an awful lot of time in the gym doing extra work, shooting. He shoots about four or five hundred a day. There’s a reason he makes big shots, because he takes a lot of them every day.”

So which winning basket did Ralston think was bigger?

“Probably this one, because it’s on Kentucky’s floor,” he said. “They were both good to me, but I’ll rank this one (No.1) because that was last week (and) this is this week.”

Following Ralston’s shot, J-Town turned the ball over on a charging foul, and Xavier Price was short on a 3-point try with six seconds left that would have given the Chargers a 44-43 lead.

The Chargers, who were led by Lavonte Harris with 11 points, had only one field goal in the final 4:35. They went 2 for 10 from the field and 0 for 7 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter.

Lincoln scored 10 straight points in the first quarter to take a 16-9 lead and led 28-19 in the final seconds of the first half.

J-Town tied the game late in the third quarter and took a 38-37 lead with 3:47 to play during a drought in which Lincoln went scoreless for 3:06 and without a field goal for 4:51.

Jaxon Smith hit two free throws with 2:38 to play to knot the score at 39-all. The Chargers regained the lead on a reverse layup by Drae Vasser, but they missed a chance to add to it when Brandon Gatewood missed a free throw on the front end of the bonus at 1:06.

Sims rebounded for Lincoln, and Ralston connected seconds later to give Lincoln the lead.

Looking ahead
North Oldham won the lowest-scoring Sweet 16 game since 1983 in its Sweet 16 debut to advance to a game against Lincoln in the quarterfinals.

The Mustangs came to the tournament with more losses than any team in the field, but they have tested themselves against a schedule that included three Sweet 16 teams — they lost to J-Town 56-55 — and several other powerful programs.

“Facing those tough teams, playing in the King of the Bluegrass and big tournaments like that, it really prepared us for this moment,” guard Dallas Roberts said. “Even if our record is not 29-4 like everybody else, we’re coming in here confident.”

Luke Anderson had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Roberts had 10 points in the win over Muhlenberg. Roberts leads North Oldham with 17.5 points per game; fellow juniors Ian Higdon and Jack Scales average 12.6 and 12.2.

The Mustangs are coached by former Louisville player David Levitch, a North Oldham alumnus. Former Louisville player and interim head coach David Padgett is a volunteer assistant coach.

KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen
At Lexington
First Round
LINCOLN COUNTY (30-7) — Jackson Sims 0-1 1-2 1, Tramane Alcorn 2-7 2-5 6, Jaxon Smith 3-10 8-11 14, Colton Ralston 5-9 0-1 12, Sawyer Horton 0-0 0-0 0, Jalen Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Connor Davis 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 14-34 13-22 45.
JEFFERSONTOWN (24-9) — Lukus McDaniels 2-4 2-2 6, Lavonte Harris 3-8 1-2 7, Brandon Gatewood 2-4 1-3 5, Drae Vasser 3-6 1-1 8, Will Vasser 1-10 5-7 8, Xavier Price 2-12 3-3 7, Rhys Taylor 0-0 0-0 0, Genesis Nimely 0-1 0-0 0, Brian Gatweood 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 13-46 13-19 41.

Lincoln County 16  28  35  45
Jeffersontown   13  20  35  41

3-Point Goals—Lincoln County 4-12 (Sims 0-1, Jax. Smith 0-2, Ralston 2-6, Cl. Davis 1-1, Jal. Smith 0-1, Co. Davis 1-1), Jeffersontown 2-19 (McDaniels 0-1, Harris 0-2, D. Vasser 1-3, W. Vasser 1-7, Price 0-6). Fouled Out—Alcorn. Rebounds—Lincoln County 25 (Sims, Cl. Davis 5), Jeffersontown 32 (Harris 11). Assists—Lincoln County 10 (Alcorn 5), Jeffersontown 7 (D. Vasser 3). Total Fouls—Lincoln County 17, Jeffersontown 23. A—10,065.