By RAY SCHAEFER
For The Independent
VANCEBURG It was midway through the third quarter of Tuesday's boys basketball game between Lewis County and visiting Ashland when Lions guard Brett Ruckel frustratingly slapped the court after missing a shot.
Ruckel's anger was a fitting metaphor for the night as a whole.
The Tomcats rode senior Zach Hart's 17 points to a 63-49 opening night victory.
Ashland coach Buddy Biggs talked about what he called his team's “deer in the headlights” look, which he anticipated because Hart is the only player who had started a varsity game.
“I think it was 2-2 after four minutes or something,” Biggs said. “They couldn't stick it in, we couldn't either.”
A couple seconds later, Biggs praised the defense, and with good reason: it forced 24 Lewis County turnovers, which the Tomcats converted into 18 points; harried the Lions into 14-of-54 shooting (25.9 percent) for the night; and made Ruckel earn his team-high 15 points on 3-of-16 shooting.
“I was very, very pleased with our defense … ,” Biggs said. “... Execution was very sloppy on the offensive end, but again, for this young of a team, you're not going to be too displeased with a double-digit win on the road in the (16th) Region.”
Hart's line wasn't the best of his career: 6 of 18 from the field, 2 of 9 from 3-point distance and seven turnovers.
“Not too great,” Hart said. “I hit a lot of shots, but I've got to hit more shots ... I just kind of started walking. I wasn't stepping into my shot, I was hopping; it kind of threw my shot off.”
When Biggs said the offense was sloppy, he possibly was thinking about his team's 23 turnovers, the 2-of-15 from 3-point range or the 23-of-57 shooting overall.
Still, there were lots of other reasons for Biggs to be happy: sophomore Dikembe Dixson's 14 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots; junior Nick Miller's 11 points and 11 boards; a 47-30 rebounding win; and 11-0 in second chance points.
“We had 33 defensive rebounds, which I thought was fantastic, and we had 14 offensive, which is also very good,” Biggs said. “ … I thought we did a good job of taking advantage of our length.”
To Dixson, the blocks were his favorite statistic.
“I don't usually block shots,” he said. “I usually just score and get steals, but I had to try something new because I had a rough start in the first half.”
Ashland's length — Dixson at 6-foot-6, Hart at 6-3 and Miller at 6-3 — was a major theme in Lewis County coach Joe Hampton's post-game conversation.
“They're a strong team, but they have excellent length, and they're athletic, too,” Hampton said. “With their length, their big kids can move extremely well.”
Ashland outscored Lewis County, 55-44, over the final three quarters on what were actually two smaller streaks — an 11-2 spree late in the second quarter and a 13-2 explosion to open the third.
As a result, it didn't hurt Ashland to not have senior Logan Salow or freshman Quinton Baker; both are out with injuries they suffered during football season.
How long did it take Ashland to score? A little less than two minutes into the game when Dixson knocked down a 15-footer from the right wing.
The Tomcats' early spotty offense would have been more of a problem if not for the Tomcat defense — Lewis County did not score until Colton Ripato's bucket a little more three minutes in. The Lions managed just three more points the rest of the quarter on Trenton Walker's free goal and free throw with 3:05 remaining in the first off Jake Parker's cross-court pass.
Ashland's defense was stingy in two ways; the man-to-man cut off Ruckel's drives down the lane (he nevertheless led the Lions with 15 points), and the 2-2-1 full-court zone trap harassed the Lions into 10 first-half turnovers. The result: just five field goals in 25 shots in the first half.
Hart, Miller, Steven Friley and Damantie Thornton scored in Ashland's 11-2 run, which only took a minute and 42 seconds. Thornton led with four points, Miller added three, and Hart and Friley had two apiece.
After Ashland's bench drew a technical foul, Lewis County finished the second quarter with Ruckel's four points and Jordan Davis falling down 3-pointer with 22 seconds before intermission.
Dixson led the Tomcats with six points in the third quarter to help give Ashland a 41-23 lead, which became 53-32 with 6:39 left in the game.
Lewis County forevermore rebounded: Jake Parker's five points, Walker's five and Ruckel's three helped the Lions close to 58-47 with 1:58 left in the game. Hampton said that part was encouraging.
“Last year when teams would go on runs against us, we would often put our heads down,” Hampton said. “... They continued to play and play hard the entire night.”
By RAY SCHAEFER
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