Register Sports Writer
The Model Patriots played like a veteran state-tournament team Thursday in defeating University Heights Academy, 68-56, in the first round of the Touchstone Energy All "A" Classic Tournament.
After some early minute jitters that left them trailing 7-0, the Patriots looked nothing like a first-time tournament team. They methodically built a commanding lead and never let the eight-time All “A” champions get closer than four points the rest of the way.
Model coach Wes Scarberry said his team played like he and they expected them to on the big stage.
“I wasn't really surprised that we played well today, having a senior-laden group ... it wasn't too big a deal to them playing in this setting,” Scarberry said. “Even though we haven't been here before, the determination our guys had, it didn't surprise me at all the way they played today.”
Four Patriots scored in double figures, led by Jon Ballard, who had 20 points and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.
A.J. Hammons finished with 12 points and six rebounds, while Anthony Gerald had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists and Jesse Middleton had 10 points.
Brendan Hill added nine points and three rebounds and Zack Rice-Gordon had six points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots.
The Patriots used a 13-2 run mid-way through the third quarter to break open the very tight game and take a 43-32 lead.
As it has been the entire season, the run was a total team effort with five players scoring.
Ballard had four points, Hammons, Rice-Gordon and Gerald each had a basket and Middleton hit a big three pointer to close the run.
UHA came right back and scored five straight points to cut the lead to 43-37 and had a chance to get even closer, but Taylor Bynum missed two-of-three free throws with 15 seconds left in the quarter.
But Ballard quickly gave the momentum back to the Patriots when he nailed a basket from the wing at the buzzer to give Model a 45-37 lead heading to the final quarter.
“Jon's shot was huge. We had A.J. coming off a double-screen and isolated Jon on the post,” Scarberry said. “He's pretty good at that, he's done that several times for us this year. He kind of works on it in practice ... and it's for moments like that and it worked out for us today for sure.”
Ballard wasn't finished, though.
With University Heights turning up its full-court pressure on Hammons and Gerald, Scarberry once again asked Ballard to play the point and bring the ball up the floor in the fourth quarter.
The move paid off as Ballard found driving lanes to the basket and scored Model's first eight points of the quarter, the last giving the Patriots a 56-47 lead with 4:20 left in the game.
UHA scored the next five points to cut the Model lead to four at 56-52 with 2:23 to go.
Free throws by Gerald and Hammons pushed the lead back to eight before Austin Bynum hit a layup to cut it to 60-54 with two minutes left.
But, Rice-Gordon hit two free throws, Ballard had another basket and Gerald hit two free throws to extend the lead to 66-54 with 40 seconds left. Rice-Gordon sank two more free throws with 30 seconds to go.
The Patriots came up with big baskets and defensive stops every time it looked like UHA was beginning to get the momentum.
Several times during the game, Hammons, Gerald and Hill came up with steals that resulted in baskets on the other end.
On the inside, Rice-Gordon and Ballard had big blocks and steals down the stretch to preserve the Patriots’ lead.
Middleton was also in the middle of several key moments of the game. His three pointer early in the game brought the Patriots to within three at 10-7 and ignited the offense, while his second three at the end of the decisive run gave Model its largest lead of the game.
But his biggest impact might have been on the defensive end where he stepped up and drew four charging fouls after UHA players had beaten their defenders and were about to score.
Middleton said he wasn't surprised UHA didn’t respect his outside shooting ability and as for the defense, that's just part of his job.
“My appearance I guess. I don't look like the type of guy who would shoot it, so they were leaving me open and I'll take the shot,” Middleton said. “Taking charges is just something I’ve always done. I'm a baseball player and don't really think about the contact, I just do it.”
But one of the biggest plays of the game epitomized the Patriots play all year.
Model was clinging to a slim six-point lead inside the final minute and the Blazers had just come up with a steal on the inside.
On the outlet pass up the sideline, Hill raced in front of the Blazer’s Dashjon Brown and knocked the ball free. He then outfought Brown as the two went to the floor for the loose ball, came up with the ball and called timeout to give the Patriots a chance to run more crucial time off the clock.
Scarberry said going into the game that he wanted his players to play well, but he also wanted them to enjoy the entire experience.
Middleton said his first taste of the All "A" Classic has been even better than he expected.
“This feels 10 times better than I thought it would,” Middleton said. “This whole time up here is great. Even in the hotel and spending time with the guys is a great bonding experience. It's really making our team a lot stronger.”
The Patriots shot 53.3 percent from the floor and from behind the three-point line in the game. They also hit 12-of-15 free throws for 80 percent.
The Model defense held the Blazers to 38 percent shooting from the floor and only 23.8 percent from behind the arc.
University Heights had never lost in the opening round of the All “A” Classic, having previously posted a stunning 17-0 record.
Model will take on Bardstown Friday at 5 p.m. The Tigers defeated Carlisle County 61-46 in the first game of the morning session Thursday.
Tickets for the game are $10 each and can be purchased at the door.