By Dan Wright
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – The Newport Wildcats seemed to have found a home for themselves at the Bank of Kentucky Center on the campus of NKU, winning their first game in the 9th Region tournament Monday, 68-59, against Dixie Heights.
It was the Wildcats’ first appearance in the regional tournament since the 2010 team won three straight games to advance to state, and only their second appearance in this event since it moved to this arena in 2009.
The Wildcats advance to play Covington Catholic at noon in the first of two semifinals on Saturday at NKU. The other semifinal matchup will be determined when play resumes in the boys tournament tonight at 6:30.
When Newport made its run in 2012, current head coach Rod Snapp was an assistant at Dixie Heights, so he kept his focus just getting this year’s team through to the next round.
“We talked about let’s step up for our seniors right now. We’re shooting well, we’re playing well, and we’re coming together as a team. Anything can happen,” said Snapp. “We definitely haven’t been talking about winning it all, it’s just one step at a time, it’s one day at a time and that’s what we’ve been stressing.”
Newport’s four senior starters led the way, with forward Jasean Short scoring 15 points to go with nine rebounds and four assists and guard Cody Pearson scoring 15 points, all in the second half.
The biggest effort, however, came from forward Marquis Commodore, who led the team with 18 points and 10 rebounds after coming into the game as the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 8.3 points per game.
“I’ll tell you what, he’s been huge on the glass,” Snapp said of Commodore. “Without looking, he’s probably had double figures the last seven or eight games on the glass.”
Junior guard JaQuan Short matched Commodore’s 18 points, including a six during a 10-2 run that enabled Newport to pull within a point, 23-22, after trailing throughout the entire first half.
Senior forward Alex Milligan added a basket for Dixie Heights to get its lead back to three points, 25-22, but it would be his last basket of the game.
“We had to get Milligan out of the game,” Snapp said. “He’s a senior and he was dominating the game. He had six points at half. If he scored six more we were going to get beat.”
The Wildcats achieved that by building a 29-25 lead less than two minutes into the second half to take the lead and control of the game.
“They grew some muscles after they started out there on a 7-0 run to start the second half and we knew if we played behind and they started spreading the floor, we were in trouble,” said Dixie Heights head coach Ken Chevalier. “So a kid like Alex Milligan, a senior who played extremely well in the first half, had limited minutes in the second half just because they went with a smaller lineup and we needed to make sure we were doing a better job guarding.”
The Wildcats built their lead to nine points by the end of the third quarter, 43-34, but junior guard Adam Daria capped a five-point run with a steal and layup that had Dixie Heights back to within a point, 51-50, with 3:34 left to play.
After a time out, Newport responded by feeding Pearson and Jasean Short to up its lead to 55-50.
“We wanted to get it to our two playmakers down on the block,” said Snapp. “We were trying to make one ball reversal and go inside. We didn’t want any outside shots. If they did I’d have come out on the floor and probably gotten thrown out.”
What followed seemed just as unlikely to happen, as Newport, which entered the game shooting 51.0 percent from the foul line as a team, sank 11 straight free throws to ice the victory.
“That’s when I looked at my assistant coach and ‘I said what can you do?’,” Chevalier said. “We were in position in the fourth quarter where it was a one- or two-possession basketball game. They made a couple of plays, we didn’t, and now we’re having to foul them and when they step up to the line and you look at the stat sheet and see a kid’s a 50-percent foul shooter and they’re knocking down one after another. That’s disheartening.”
Newport finished 17 for 22 (77.3-percent) from the foul line and 24 for 58 from the field (41.4-percent). Dixie Heights was 16 for 20 (80.0-percent) from the line and 20 for 48 from the field (41.7-percent).
The Colonels were led by junior guard Brandon Hatton with 23 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore forward Nick Niehaus added 14 points.
Newport out-rebounded Dixie Heights, 35 to 32.
The most pleasing stat to Snapp, however, may have been the assist totals, where Jasean and JaQuan Short both had four and junior guard Michael Turner had three.
“I think it’s our kids playing together. Listening, buying in to each other, having trust in each other, and making the extra pass. We are usually a no-pass or one-pass and shoot team,” said Snapp. “When we get the ball and all five guys are moving we can compete with a lot of teams.”
D. HEIGHTS 16-9-9-25—59
NEWPORT (20-9): Jas. Short 6