The Ashland Invitational Tournament already holds plenty of fond memories for Newport Central Catholic head coach Grant Brannen.
He’s making more this week.
Brannen’s undefeated squad turned away stubborn Russell 67-61 in the semifinals Friday night at Anderson Gym to reach tonight’s title game against the host Tomcats.
“It feels great,” Brannen said. “Obviously, this is a first-class tournament. Our kids have done well being in a different environment. I guess it’s almost like a home game for Russell.”
Brannen earned All-AIT honors as a player for NewCath in 1997, when the Thoroughbreds lost in the opening round to eventual state champion Scott County.
In 2003, he was an assistant coach there as Newport Central Catholic defeated Buddy Biggs-coached Pendleton County for the AIT championship.
Now, Brannen will try to guide NewCath past Biggs’ Tomcats in the finals of the 58th annual holiday tournament. The Thoroughbreds got to this point with wins over 16th Region contenders Boyd County and Russell in tight finishes.
“I contacted Buddy probably back in February or March about getting into the tournament this year,” Brannen said. “I know there are a lot of well-coached teams in this region. When you get a win against a 16th Region team down here, it’s a very good thing.”
NewCath held a 10-point lead with less than five minutes remaining Friday, but had a difficult time shaking the Red Devils.
Russell pulled to within three on two occasions — the last at 64-61 after Kyle Skaggs made two free throws with 1:40 to play. On their next possession, the Red Devils missed a 3-point shot that could have tied it.
After a timeout at 1:09, Newport Central Catholic ran the clock down until senior captain Michael Bueter broke free for a layup to make it a five-point lead with 35 seconds remaining.
“We were able to space it out and Mike was able to take advantage of an open lane,” Brannen said.
Skaggs couldn’t get a runner in the lane to drop, then Bueter added a free throw with 18 seconds to go.
“They are 10-0 and Northern Kentucky basketball is strong,” Red Devils coach Merle Kidwell said. “They lost heartbreakers to get to the State Tournament the last two years. Grant is a great basketball coach.”
The Thoroughbreds, who shot better than 50 percent for the second night in a row, possess a tall and athletic front line to go with the dynamite guard play of Bueter. He shot of 3-of-4 from long range and finished with 21 points — despite facing a box-and-one defense at times — after scoring a career-high 29 against Boyd County.
“Our plan was to try to slow Bueter down and he scores 21,” Kidwell said. “He just doesn’t miss open shots.”
Jake Schulte, the team’s 6-foot-8 center, had 16 points and nine rebounds including a couple of alley-oop dunks. Drew McDonald, a 6-6, 245-pound sophomore, had 15 points while NewCath used 6-5 Nick Seibert defensively against Skaggs.
Brannen called point guard Zach Pangallo the unsung hero Friday after he handed out 11 assists to go with five points and a couple of steals.
“They are so hard to guard for us,” Kidwell said. “We had to try to speed them up. We gave up some layups and dunks on the backside but took them right down to the last minute.”
Jacob Porter scored 17 points, Skaggs 16 and Lance Evans collected 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Red Devils (9-4). Steven Estep pitched in with seven points and eight rebounds.
“I thought our big guys grew up tonight,” Kidwell said. “Lance and Steven adjusted to their length.”
Russell certainly gained NewCath’s respect.
“Coach Kidwell does an excellent and Kyle Skaggs is a great player,” Brannen said. “I hope people know about him around the state, and Michael Bueter also.”
West Jessamine 79
Boyd County 63
Sunk by a last-second 28-footer from Russell’s Kyle Skaggs on opening night, West Jessamine couldn’t wait to get back on the court Friday afternoon.
Especially junior forward Daulton Peters, who made a run at the AIT single-game scoring mark.
Peters zapped Boyd County for 45 points, finishing five shy of the tournament record shared by Charles Osborne (Flat Gap) and Ervin Stepp (Phelps).
“I was wanting to make up for the loss,” said Peters, who scored nine the previous night. “I wanted to play extra hard.”
An athletic, 6-foot-3 player, Peters shot 18-for-30 from the floor including 4-of-6 beyond the arc.
His previous high was 29 points three times as a sophomore, when he averaged 16.5. Peters entered the AIT scoring at a 15.3 clip.
“Daulton is very strong, very athletic,” Colts coach Damon Kelley said. “He had not been playing this year like I think he’s capable. Today, he certainly stepped up. He went and got the ball a lot, and the other guys got the ball to him.”
Point guard Will Henderson accounted for eight of the team’s 18 assists.
“Honestly, one of the biggest reasons we are successful is Will,” Peters said. “He gets the ball to the open man.”
Henderson also delivered 14 points, four rebounds and two steals for West Jessamine (9-3). His father (Bill Henderson) and grandfather (Jerry Henderson) are former Ashland Tomcat greats.
Peters’ monster game started slowly with only four points in the first quarter as the Colts trailed 14-13.
But he pumped in 19 points in the second quarter and 17 more in the third period, enabling West Jessamine to build a 17-point lead. Colts opened the fourth quarter with a 12-2 run as the margin ballooned to 28 points.
Peters made his last point on a free throw and exited with 2:13 on the clock.
Overall, West Jessamine shot 8-for-13 on three-pointers and scored 25 points off Boyd County’s 19 turnovers.
Austin Hunt topped the Lions with 20 points. Brandon Lowe scored 14 and Grayson Griffith added 11.
W. JESSAMINE 13 22 27 17 — 79
BOYD COUNTY 14 16 15 18 — 63
West Jessamine (79) — Fain 8, Richards, Henderson 14, Irgang 4, Peters 45, Kossick 4, Jackson 2, Holifield, Adkins 2, Seater, Sanders, Crouse, Bandy, Hampton. 3-point FGs: 8 (Peters 4, Sain 2, Henderson 2). FT: 15-21. PF: 16.
Boyd County (63) — Hunt 20, Wallace 2, Stacy 6, Taylor 2, Lowe 14, Griffith 11, Jerrell 3, Burgess 5, Anderson. 3-point FGs: 7 (Lowe 2, Stacy 2, Hunt 2, Burgess). FT: 10-17. PF: 20.
Henderson Co. 49
Sheldon Clark 38
Henderson County, which missed Thursday’s opening round after being delayed by snow in western Kentucky, outrebounded Sheldon Clark 35-21 to win the low-scoring contest.
The Colonels, from the Second Region, outscored the Cardinals 10-0 on second-chance points.
Both teams struggled to put the ball in the basket. Henderson County shot 39 percent while holding Sheldon Clark to 31 percent. They were a combined 5-for-32 from 3-point range.
D.J. Washington and David Simmons each scored 10 points to lead the Colonels to their 10th win in 12 games. Cain Cooper pulled down 11 rebounds.
Sheldon Clark, held to four points in the third quarter, slipped to 0-2 in the tournament after coming in with a 7-1 record.
Chase Kirk scored 13 points for the Cardinals, while Chase Pressley and Dylan James each added 10.
HENDERSON CO. 15 10 11 13 — 49
SHELDON CLARK 13 10 4 11 — 38
Henderson County (49) — Comer 9, Washington 10, Simmons 10, Grimes, Cooper 6, Armstead, Sanners 5, Norman 4, Smith 5, Crowley. 3-point FGs: 2 (Sanners, Smith). FT: 7-12. PF: 20.
Sheldon Clark (38) — Pressley 10, James 10, Blackburn 1, C. Kirk 13, Rice 2, Sartin 2, Tiller. 3-point FGs: 3 (James 2, C. Kirk). FT: 9-12. PF: 15.