Entering Saturday’s matinee with George Rogers Clark, Ashland hadn’t played a close game in two weeks.
The Cardinals presented the Tomcats with exactly that, and Ashland passed that test when it converted 4 of 4 free throws in the final 12.8 seconds and Clark missed two shots to tie or take the lead in the last 25 seconds.
That added up to a 57-52 Ashland victory at Anderson Gym.
Saturday’s game started about 17 1/2 hours after the Tomcats’ 80-52 defeat of Russell on Friday night.
“Last night was a track meet. Tonight was just a grinder. It should give our kids confidence that we can win both ways,” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs said. “Clark County did a great job of controlling the tempo a little more than we would have liked, especially in the second half, and they were grinding us and grinding us, and our kids responded. “
Steven Friley posted his third straight double-double, with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
“I know my role is just get easy buckets down low and rebound, and I feel like I’ve been rebounding really well, up to my capability,” the senior said. “I just gotta go get it and use my length and get it out and go on the break.”
Nick Miller also scored 16 points and Tyler Stewart added 14 as the Tomcats (10-3) won for the sixth time in their last seven outings and also improved to 6-1 at home.
Clark’s Damion King tallied 18 points to lead all scorers.
King hit a buzzer-beater from a couple steps beyond half-court to end the first quarter and put the Cardinals on top 18-17 through eight minutes, and Clark (7-9) led 33-30 at halftime.
Ashland’s answer was scoring the final seven points of the third quarter to take the lead for good.
Miller converted an and-1 with 1:06 to go in the period, Ross Thompson hit a putback with 25 seconds showing, and Stewart made a transition runner 10 seconds later for a 46-43 edge for the Tomcats through three quarters.
“We were a little sluggish at first,” Friley said. “We were down at half and we just didn’t panic, we just came out and had a great second half and played great defense.”
Trailing 53-47, Clark scored five straight points to pull within one point on Khmarkis Blanton’s foul shot with 1:03 to play.
The Cardinals got the ball back, but Braxton Greene missed a jumper for the lead with 23 seconds to go.
“I love that he was mentally tough enough to take that shot,” Clark coach Scott Humphrey said of Greene. “Khmarkis was crashing the glass. It just didn’t bounce our way.”
Miller drained two charity tosses with 12.8 ticks remaining, and Clark’s Riley Caudill then missed a trey to tie with 7 seconds left before Friley stepped to the line for a 1-and-1 with 4.9 seconds left, trying to extend Ashland’s lead to two possessions.
He rattled in the first free throw and sank the second one easily to do so.
“I wasn’t really nervous, but I let go of that first one and just kind of watched it go in, and it was the slowest free throw I’ve ever shot in my life,” Friley said with a grin, “and at that point that pretty much sealed it. That big one, it scared me for sure, the first one.”
Humphrey, a Russell alumnus, said he likes Clark’s progress so far, but that the Cardinals still have work to do before tournament time.
“Our guys need a win against a quality opponent, and they’re battling,” Humphrey said. “They’re giving me everything they got. I thoroughly enjoy coaching this bunch. We struggle to score at times, but I can’t fault their effort.”
One area Ashland would like to shore up is turnovers. The Tomcats gave it away 20 times to Clark’s 13.
“That’s an area of concern. We’re gonna have to address that in practice,” Biggs said. “We typically don’t have that many turnovers, even when teams do press us. ... A lot of the turnovers were in the half-court, and you gotta give Clark credit because they play such tough defense.”
Ashland improved to 35-28 all-time against the Cardinals. Their series is the most-played by the Tomcats against any Kentucky school not in the 16th Region. Clark moved to the 10th Region from the 16th in 1966.
The Tomcats return to action Tuesday in a boy-girl 64th District seeding doubleheader against Fairview.
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.