CORBIN — If the district championship games provide any indication, then this week’s boys 13th Region Tournament should be a wild ride. Sure, Bell County exorcised two years worth of playoff demons in a 76-50 win over Middlesboro in the 52nd District. But the other three districts produced two one-point title games decided at the buzzer and another that went into double-overtime.
While Knox Central, defending champ Clay County and Jackson County enter as the tourney favorites, the consensus among coaches is that every team in the field is capable beating the others on any given night.
That parity was on display Friday night. Playing on their home court in the 51st District title game, Knox Central trailed Barbourville nearly the whole way. The Panthers scored to take a 54-53 lead with eight seconds to play and then held on when the Tigers were called for a charge at the buzzer. Home-standing Clay trailed Jackson County by 12 in the fourth quarter and were still down by six with less than a minute left. But the Tigers managed to pull out the 93-92 win in the 49th District championship game. Another home team, Corbin, needed two extra frames to get past Williamsburg 62-58 in the 50th District final.
“We’ve played about everybody in the tournament and just about every game has been really close,” Bobcat coach Lewis Morris said. “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a good draw or a bad draw, everybody is here for a reason and they’re all good teams. You’ve got to play this time of year, if you have a bad game you go to the house.”
The boys tournament will start on Thursday at the Arena in Corbin with Clay County (20-10) playing Middlesboro (10-20) at 6:30 p.m. Knox Central (19-9) plays Williamsburg (15-16) at 8 p.m.
The first round continues on Friday with Bell County (20-10) taking on Barbourville (18-12) in the 6:30 p.m. game and Corbin (20-10) meeting Jackson County (21-10) at 8 p.m.
“You’ve got some teams that benefited from the off-season that have a little bit more size and a little bit more depth. I don’t know that there’s a clear favorite, but there are a couple that probably think they have a better shot than everybody else,” Morris said. “That doesn’t really matter, it’s who gets hot right now and who plays the best.”
The Bobcats’ matchup with Barbourville may be the most intriguing of the first round. Bell pulled out a 69-65 win at Barbourvile on Feb. 18.
The Tigers rely a bit more on the outside shot than Bell County does, so a big key will be how quickly the teams can adapt to shooting in The Arena. Sophomore Brentley Perry and freshman Wade Liford stepped up big on the wings for Barbourville in the 51st District Tournament. Senior center Jason Mills could have his hands full with Bell sophomore Zach Partin. The Tigers should have senior guard Alexander Phipps back to offer another 3-point option and senior Tanner Moore has improved at running the offense during the season.
“Barbourville does a good job of spreading the floor and they’ve three or four really good shooters. Their post player does a good job inside, but he can also step out and hit 3-point shots,” Morris said. “They’re a hard match-up. They’re quick, they’re well-coached and they’ll be ready to go.”
“I have to give credit to my seniors,” Tiger coach Dinky Phipps said. “They have really picked things up and kept us going. I believe any team in the region can win this, though.
“I think if we continue to play like we have, we have a chance to surprise. We’re happy to be here and we’ll see it what happens.”
This is the first regional appearance for the Bobcats since they won the whole thing in 2011. They come in having won 11 of their last 13 games. That stretch includes victories over Clay County and Corbin and they only lost by three at Knox Central back on Jan. 17. Bell may have played their most complete game as a team in Friday’s district title win. Four players scored in double-figures — Josh Asher, Tyler Potter, Jake Patterson and Chase Woolum —while Partin finished with eight and seniors Ben Collett and Cody Ferguson combined for eight more off the bench.
Early in the season the Bobcats relied on Potter to carry most of the offensive load. The senior averaged well over 20 points per game during the first month and a half, but Morris says his team is harder to deal with when they stay balanced.
“For us, everybody has got to play well. If not, we’re limited,” he said. “We’ve got to play as a team. We don’t have one person that can just take over, so to speak, especially with our size.”
On paper Middlesboro appears to be the biggest underdog of the first round with their matchup against Clay. The Tigers handed the Jackets a 102-64 loss in the regular season finale.
“They’re the defending regional champions and they’ve been playing really good basketball toward the end of the season this year,” MHS coach Russell Thompson said. “It’s a tough draw, but in order to be the champions of the 13th Region you’re going to have to go through the best. Right now I’d say a lot of people would consider Clay County to be the best, the favorites to win it. We’ll get our opportunity to knock them off early.”
It’s a similar set-up to last year. Clay beat Middlesboro handily to end the regular season and the teams met in the regional semifinals. Middlesboro stayed within one possession of the Tigers until midway through the fourth quarter before the Tigers pulled away late for a 72-60 win.
“It was a ballgame when we played in the region (last year) and we expect it to be a good ballgame again,” Tiger coach Robert Marcum said. “Anytime you’ve got (Donnie) Foister and (Austin) Poindexter on the floor, those are two really nice ball players and they’re very dangerous. They really like to push it, we can’t give them a lot of transition baskets.”
Foister and Poindexter may be the two most explosive players in the entire region, but their game-to-game performance can also be the most volatile. Foister was undefendable in the district semifinals — he hit 17 of 23 shots in scoring 41 points in a win over Harlan County. But followed that up by only going 5-for-19 and scoring 13 points in the loss to Bell County in the championship game. Likewise, Poindexter put a ten-game stretch together in late January and February where he averaged over 30 points and 12 rebounds per game. But was held to nine points in the 52nd District title game.
Without big performances from those two seniors the Jackets have not been able to compete against the top teams in the region.
“We put a lot on those two kids. We need their productivity on offense night-in and night-out to compete. We have a lot of guys that have discovered their roles and play those roles well, but it’s not like someone else is very likely to come in and put up 20 points for us,” Thompson said. “(Foister and Poindexter) know that they’ve got to put the ball in the basket for us and the other guys know they need to rebound and defend and hit shots when it’s their turn.”
The Tigers graduated four starters from last year’s regional champions. But return junior point guard Tyler “Chip” McDaniel, the reigning tournament MVP. He leads five starters averaging double-figures with 16.4 points per game. Clay County got a big boost inside when 6-8 senior Jake Allen transferred from North Laurel in the summer. They also got some help when sophomore Trey Farmer and junior Ryan House moved back to the area.
Marcum said he doesn’t consider any one team to be the favorites, but added that his team is still riding high from Friday’s dramatic win over Jackson County.
“We were down six points with like 25 seconds to go and came out and won that game. We’re on an emotional high right now and we’re hoping to ride that,” he said. “(But) I look at every team as equal and we’re just taking it one game at a time. You just have to execute and play and hopefully things can go your way.”