Back-to-back wins over defending region champions have the Tomcats cracking a few smiles.
Ashland put away Johnson Central, 62-55, with a decisive fourth-quarter spurt on Friday night at Anderson Gym, just three nights after the Tomcats downed defending 16th Region titleholder Rowan County on the road. Johnson Central won the 15th Region a year ago and is one of the favorites again.
“We’re finally coming together as a whole team,” said Ashland senior Logan Salow. “You can see it out there. We’re having fun, playing together.”
Division-I prospect Shane Hall rose up and splashed in a short jumper to close Johnson Central’s deficit to 37-35 at the third-quarter buzzer.
Ashland (19-8) didn’t let the Golden Eagles seize one iota of momentum, though.
“We just bore down and got the hustle plays we needed,” Salow said.
Just moments after capping off a 7-2 surge with a key 3-pointer, Salow came up with one of those hustle plays. The ball was stolen from him at midcourt before he jetted to the basket in defense, grabbed a rebound off a missed shot and scooted all the way back downcourt for a bucket to put his team ahead, 48-41.
Ross Thompson and Salow both finished off baseline drives through traffic for layups in the closing minutes, with Salow’s becoming a three-point play, to keep a cushion against the Golden Eagles. Salow had 13 points in all.
Dikembe Dixson turned in a game-best 22 points for the Tomcats, who are riding a seven-game winning streak. The sophomore was 8 of 17 from the free-throw line, but missed his first five foul shots.
Ashland made 11 of its final 14 free throws, including 4 of 4 by Thompson, to help seal a defeat of Johnson Central for the second straight season.
“It’s been a great week, a great week of practice too,” said Ashland coach Buddy Biggs. “There’s always a point (in the season) where you’re going to go one way or the other. We were 12-8. We were looking at 12-15 or 19-8. We’re at 19-8, and we’ve got something good rolling.”
Biggs credited his team’s openness to change as a factor during this hot stretch.
“We’ve tinkered a lot defensively,” Biggs said. “We’re not doing the fullcourt trapping as much. We’re playing more zone than normal.”
The zone worked on Friday.
As a team, the Golden Eagles (14-10) shot 39.6 percent from the floor and hit just four 3-pointers in 18 tries.
Hall, who has scholarship offers from Tennessee, Butler and Xavier, among others, was held to no points in the first quarter before tallying 15 total to go with 10 rebounds. He is still working his way fully back from a high ankle sprain.
Johnson Central coach Tommy McKenzie would like to see more involvement from the 6-foot-9 junior.
“We’ve got to look for him more, but he’s got to work harder to get those touches,” McKenzie said. “I think a lot of times he’s content with allowing other guys to make plays. He knows what we’ve got to have out of him and he’s got to bring that every night.”
Johnson Central played without starting guard Slade McPeek (throat infection). McPeek leads the team in steals and averages double figures in scoring.
The backcourt duo Braxton Blair and Dalton Adkins never sat out. They combined for just 15 points on 6-of-20 shooting.
Truman Salyer had 12 points and Kyle Gullett added 11 for the Golden Eagles.
Zach Hart chipped in 11 points for Ashland, as much of the Tomcats’ early offense came from him and Dixson.
Both coaches pointed to Dixson’s free throw numbers as a difference-maker. Ashland was 17 of 29 overall from the charity stripe compared to Johnson Central’s 9-of-12 mark.
“The way he plays is a more physical brand,” McKenzie said. “He creates a lot of contact.”
Both also agreed that this is a natural game to be played annually.
“We are going to re-up (the series) because we want to keep playing,” Biggs said. “And I love where it is on the schedule. It’s a good team out of region late in the season.”
Johnson Central will take part in the Ashland Invitational Tournament next season, said McKenzie.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.