For the second straight game Ashland held its opponent to under 40 percent shooting. Now it's playing in the Ashland Invitational Tournament Championship game for the 30th time.
Ashland held South Laurel to just 35.5 percent shooting in the game on its way to 69-51 victory in the AIT semifinal game Friday night at James A. Anderson gym.
After holding Sheldon Clark to 39.9 percent in the opening round on Thursday, Tomcats coach Buddy Biggs is starting to see the defensive pressure come around to where he wants it.
“That’s something we’ve been emphasizing,” Biggs said. “That’s something we’ve been trying to get better at over the course of the season. I thought tonight, I was very pleased with our defensive intensity.”
In the first half South Laurel shot above 25 percent from the floor, going 8-of-31.
For South Laurel coach and Fairview graduate, Jeff Davis, it seemed like every time his team took a shot Ashland was there to pressure it.
“(Ashland) is long and they play so hard,” Davis said. “They guarded well tonight and every shot it seemed like we were contested or we had to hurry to get it up.”
South Laurel also had trouble with Ashland’s 1-3-1 trap defense in the first half. The Tomcats had five steals coming from the defense, all of which led to baskets.
At the top of the 1-3-1 was 6-foot-4 forward Steven Friley or 6-6 forward Dikembe Dixson. One steal by Dixson even resulted in a one-handed dunk on the Tomcats’ end.
“We practiced on (Ashland’s 1-3-1) for three days,” Davis said. “To be honest with you we had some kids who played scared. You can’t get in a moment like this, with a team that puts that much pressure on you, you can’t get scared.”
South Laurel (4-7) was led by sophomore guard Zac Baxter, who had 13 points, 10 coming in the second half.
Heading into the third quarter, Ashland held a 14-point lead and looked ready to coast to the championship game.
Three minutes, and four Ashland turnovers later, South Laurel cut the lead down to nine and forced the Tomcats to use a timeout to regroup.
Ashland (9-2) went on a six-point run to push the lead back out to 15.
“I felt we we’re getting lax,” Biggs said. “They went to their press, and we threw it away four-straight times. We knew they had the press in the arsenal, I think it just surprised us when they pulled it out. We we’re just sloppy with the ball, so we had to make corrections.”
After the third quarter run, South Laurel wouldn’t come close again. The Tomcats put the game out of reach, opening up the fourth quarter on a 18-4 run in the first five minutes.
On the Ashland offensive end, the Tomcats were led by sophomore forward Nick Miller, who scored 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Miller also went 2-for-3 from 3-point range and had five points from the free-throw line.
Biggs said he’s starting to get used to Miller, who’s averaging 16 points per game, scoring so efficiently from both the paint and the outside.
“He’s been our first or second leading scorer every night,” Biggs said. “He’s capable of doing that. Tonight he stretched it out on the floor and did a really nice job of scoring the basketball.”
After reaching a season-high in points on Thursday, Logan Salow followed it up with 12 points on Friday, including a 3-for-4 effort from the 3-point line.
Dikembe Dixson and Tyler Stewart both added 10 points coming off the bench.
With the win Ashland will play Newport Central Catholic with tipoff scheduled to take place 7:30 p.m. at Anderson Gym.
Newport Central Catholic are undefeated on the year at 10-0 and have defeated 16th region contenders Boyd County and Russell to make it to the championship game.
The Throughbreds also feature a front court of 6-5, 6-7 and 6-8 players.
After outrebounding South Laurel 39-26, Biggs knows Ashland’s chances ride on hitting the boards tonight.
“They’re one of the best teams in the state of Kentucky,” Biggs said. “They’re big, much bigger than we are. We we’re plus 13 tonight on the boards and I was really happy about that. But we’re going to have to go to war tomorrow. Boxing out is going to be a huge key tomorrow and if we don’t we lose.
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658.