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SHEPHERDSVILLE - Everybody wants to be the favorite when it comes to the post-season in basketball. That means that you have had a successful campaign to get to that point.
Of course, there is also the dark side of being the favorite. There is the extra pressure and that bulls-eye painted on your back to the other teams.
The Bullitt East Chargers had all of those things and more for the 2011 Boys’ 24th District Tournament. There was as much a sigh of relief as a roar of ecstasy after the Chargers beat Fairdale 64-53 on Friday in the championship game at Bullitt Central.
It was the second straight district title for the red and gold. A year ago the Chargers were the giant killers, knocking off Fairdale’s three-year run as the top team in the district.
The last two times Bullitt East had played in the big house at Bullitt Central, they had struggled with their offense - beating Bullitt Central by a single point during the regular season and then downing Southern two nights earlier in the district semi-finals. In both of those wins the Chargers had scored in the low 50s.
With a spot in the Sixth Region Tournament assured, the red and gold came out with less pressure and more offense.
“We were a little more focused tonight,” Bullitt East senior guard Hayden Sweat said after cutting down a section of the net. It wasn’t as nerve-wracking. Everybody was relaxed. Against Southern it was the first game in the post-season and everybody was nervous.”
Sweat finished with a game high 23 points and was named the Most Valuable Player in the tournament.
“I think in the last game against Southern we were worried about going home,” Corey Washburn, the Chargers’ other senior starter, said. “Tonight we were more relaxed because we knew we would be playing next week.”
This was the fourth time in the last five years that Bullitt East and Fairdale have clashed for the district title.
“We’ve always had tough battles with them,” Washburn noted. “They always battle us hard.”
Both Bullitt East and Fairdale advance to the Sixth Region Tournament and both teams will play on Monday in opening round games at Bellarmine University.
Sweat carried Bullitt East in the first half as he scored 17 points as Bullitt East pushed out to a 34-23 advantage. During a 14-2 run early in the second quarter, after Fairdale had pulled even at 17-17, Sweat scored nine of those points including six in a row.
“This is his time of year,” Bullitt East head coach Troy Barr said of Sweat. “He really likes to take control of games now. He has seen it all and done it all. I hope he keeps doing it.”
Bullitt East had beaten Fairdale twice during the regular season by 23- and then 31-points, but nobody was expecting a margin like that in the district final.
“It’s like I told our guys in that our margin of victory is not improving, but we are doing a lot of good things late in games to win,” Barr said. “That’s what good teams do.”
After that 11-point lead at halftime, Bullitt East could not build on that momentum. Fairdale got back-to-back three-pointers from Josh Payne and Boo Crabtree and then a hoop from Josh Stroud to pull within 39-36. Barr has talked in the past about how young the Chargers are this season, but he didn’t call a time-out at that point and Sweat took the ball down the court and straight to the basket to break Fairdale’s run.
Bullitt East had a 44-39 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but at the six-minute mark Stroud scored to make it 48-45. Washburn got loose inside for a basket and then Rusty Troutman had a key offensive rebound and basket to give the Chargers more breathing room.
After Fairdale pulled back within 52-47, Bullitt East got the ball into the corner where 6-8 sophomore Derek Willis drained a three-pointer. On the next trip down the floor, Willis stepped in front of Stroud and took the ball the length of the floor for a lay-up as he was fouled. The free throw made it 58-47 with 2:51 to play and the outcome was decided.
It was tough on the nerves when Fairdale cut the margin to three points twice in the second half.
“I was (nervous), but I knew that we had what it takes to get the game over and finish strong,” Barr said. “We had some big plays. Rusty had that rebound and basket had a blocked shot and then the run out. That is what it is all about.”
Willis, who was once again being watched by Purdue head coach Matt Painter, collected 19 points for the Chargers including four three-pointers. Bullitt East also got 11 points from Rakes.
“I can’t say enough about Trey,” Barr said of his sophomore point guard. “He is our floor general and he is doing a fantastic job.”
Fairdale, which had beaten Bullitt Central in the semi-finals, only had five players score. Stroud, the team’s only senior starter, collected 21 points while the Bulldogs also got 12 points from Demond Small and 11 from Richard Deloney.
This will be the last showdown between the Chargers and Bulldogs as both teams are being moved into different districts starting next season.
A year ago, Sweat hit a three-pointer just before the buzzer to beat Fairdale in a dramatic district final. This year there was no big shot, but being a senior, it was still a very special night.
“You want to go out of top,” Sweat said of his final game in Bullitt County and in the gym where both of his parents went to school. “If we lost it would have been a big disappointment. This makes it a great feeling tonight.”
24th District Tournament
At Bullitt Central
FAIRDALE 53 (13-10-16-14) Demond Small 12, Josh Payne 6, Josh Stroud 21, Richard Deloney 11, Boo Crabtree 3.
BULLITT EAST 64 (17-17-10-20) Trey Rakes 11, Rusty Troutman 2, Hayden Sweat 23, Derek Willis 19, Reese Hardin 2, Corey Washburn 5.