NEW ROLE AT RUPP/Warren Central boys take momentum, new mantra to KHSAA Sweet 16 this week


You could see everything changing, possession by possession.

Warren Central’s Kade Unseld, bringing the ball downcourt, at his future home, WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena. Dragons teammates Elijah Starks and Drevin Bratton hitting the boards. Veteran coach William Unseld calmly calling the shots from the Warren Central bench.

Bowling Green High School, the eighth-ranked boys basketball team in the Commonwealth, was closing in on a possible KHSAA 4th Region championship, and a trip to Lexington’s Rupp Arena for the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2020-21 season.

Then the Dragons ripped up the script and made the old-school proclomation:

“Get me rewrite, sweetheart!”

That was more than a week ago, when Warren Central, the defending KHSAA state champion, rallied from an eight-point deficit after the third quarter to stun the Purples, claiming a 64-57 victory in overtime. The triumph would send William Unseld’s rugged squad back to the Sweet 16, sometimes seemingly against all odds.

Warren Central, 1-4 on New Year’s Day, played a back-loaded, challenging non-district schedule while Kade Unseld returned from offseason meniscus surgery on his left knee. The Dragons still tangled with the likes of KHSAA contenders such as Lyon County, Adair County, and nearby Butler County, with scoring machine Ty Price tearing it up on the perimeter.

Not to mention their traditional, cross-town rival, Bowling Green, on the cusp of a 30-win season with the Sweet 16 beckoning in the distance. The fourth time proved to be the charm.

“The first two times we played Bowling Green, those were close games,” William Unseld said. “We played Butler County, Lyon County, E-Town, North Hardin, good teams … When we got to Diddle Arena, and we played Bowling Green, we knew we had to make it like a heavyweight championship fight.

“We were patient on offense, we were able to wear them down. We were able to hit the glass, and play to our size, and our strengths.”

Warren Central, 0-3 in its first three games against Bowling Green, won the one that would send the Dragons back to Rupp Arena. Warren Central takes a pedestrian 17-11 overall record into Thursday’s first-round matchup against Trent Noah and the Harlan County Black Bears (31-4). The game will tip off at Rupp Arena at 11 a.m. EDT, 10 o’clock back home in Bowling Green.

It isn’t exactly old hat on Morgantown Road, but Warren Central was the Sweet 16 runner-up in 2022, using a first-round upset of Louisville’s Male High School to get back to the championship game. They’d lose the title tilt, facing a significant logistical disadvantage against George Rogers Clark High School before dropping a gut-wrenching, 43-42 decision.

The seeds were planted for one of the finest teams in Kentucky high school basketball history.

Warren Central took on all challengers over the course of the 2022-23 season, with the bulk of the squad back from the runner-up team. This time, the Dragons would slip past GRC, 64-60, in the state championship game, to close the door on a magnificent 34-1 season.

It’s been an entirely different narrative over the last three months.

First, the Dragons had to wait on Kade Unseld’s return from knee surgery. Starks, the senior forward and BGHS transfer, wasn’t eligible until January, either, and there were plenty of challenges along the way. Kade Unseld, who will join the NCAA Tournament-bound WKU squad this summer, said it’s been a rewarding journey, for the Warren Central veterans and newcomers alike.

“No one expected us to win, and it’s almost better like that,” he said. “We’re going out there with nothing to lose. I’ve always liked being the underdog. We’re coming together at the right time.”

Harlan County, led by South Carolina signee Trent Noah, has won 10 consecutive games. The Black Bears were dominant against the KHSAA’s 13th Region, going unbeaten in 18 games over the course of the season. Noah, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound shooting guard, averages a team-high 30 points and 11 rebounds per game. Harlan County’s Maddox Huff averages 17.6 points per game, and the Black Bears shoot 50 percent from the field and 78 percent from the free-throw line.

“They shoot a lot of 3s, and Trent Noah is a special player,” William Unseld said. “We’ve got to use our physicality. Outside of Trent, we have a size advantage. We’re going to be challenged, defensively.”

Kade Unseld, Elijah Starks and Drevin Bratton have been the Dragons’ primary scorers this season, but their supporting cast has made significant strides. Bratton had 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds in the 4th Region championship game against Bowling Green, but it was clearly Kade Unseld’s night.

The Dragons’ 6-foot-5 senior swingman led the way with 26 points, on 7-of-11 shooting — including 6-for-7 from 3-point range — while adding seven rebounds, two steals and two assists. Unseld has set quite an example for Warren Central’s younger players, and the Dragons figure to be one of the deeper teams to compete in this year’s Sweet 16.

Should Warren Central eliminate Harlan County, the Dragons would take on either Newport (32-3) or Campbell County (26-6) in Friday’s quarterfinals. The path to another state championship — Warren Central would have to play four games in three days — is an imposing one, but it would be not be wise to take the Dragons for granted.

“We’re playing with house money,” Starks said with a smile after the victory over Bowling Green.

William Unseld was in no position to disagree.

“We gave the guys a couple days off after the region, and then we went back to work over the weekend,” he said. “These guys grew up together, even when they were going to different schools. We always thought, deep down, that we were capable of this kind of season. It just took us a while.

“Kade (Unseld) loves these moments. And it flows through the rest of the team. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”