Steven Estep didn’t play a single second when Russell ripped free of Ashland’s stranglehold in the rivalry series last February.
The junior is now a primary reason the Red Devils may be starting a streak of their own.
Russell beat Ashland, 64-51, on Friday night at Anderson Gymnasium for back-to-back wins over the Tomcats for the first time since 2007. Ashland rolled off seven straight prior to a 59-55 Russell win at the end of last season.
Estep scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds while Kyle Skaggs used his free-throw shooting prowess to rack up a game-high 26 points to lead the Red Devils.
“We knew we were the better team, we just had to play our game,” said Estep, who sat out all of last season with knee injuries.
After dropping about 50 pounds and fine-tuning his all-around game, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound Estep has worked his way to starter status. According to Russell coach Merle Kidwell, he kept his team afloat as Ashland battled the Red Devils closely for a little more than a half.
“Steven’s gravy for us,” Kidwell said. “He had several putback baskets to help us. He just has a knack for being around the ball.”
Ashland (9-4) made four consecutive 3-point attempts to begin the game, helping it to a 23-19 advantage by the halfway-point of the second quarter.
Offensively, though, the Tomcats struggled to collectively get on the same page. Nick Miller had an outstanding first half, with 13 points including three 3-pointers. Dikembe Dixson took charge in the second half, collecting 16 of his 18 team-high points in the final 16 minutes. He also pulled down 12 rebounds.
Outside of the sophomore duo, though, the team went 6 of 27 from the floor. Russell’s defense limited Miller to one bucket on two tries in the second half.
“We just went to the freezer,” said Ashland coach Buddy Biggs of the shooting. “It’s a shame because I was really pleased with the defensive effort. We held what I think is probably the most offensive-efficient team in the region to 37 percent.”
Ashland was just 34 percent overall from the field. Zach Hart and Logan Salow attempted only three shots apiece, but Biggs wants to see everybody tossing up more shots.
“I’d like to see them all shoot the ball more,” Biggs said. “All these guys are capable of shooting the ball.”
Biggs said the only aspect of defense in which his team failed was preventing Skaggs from visiting the foul line. Once he finally got there — at the 2:58 mark of the second quarter — he became a frequent flyer. The 16th Region’s leader in free throw attempts made 11 of 15, including his first 10, to help overshadow a 7-of-19 shooting night from the field.
“When Kyle knows his outside shot’s not there he knows to go to the basket,” Kidwell said. “He’s the best in the region at drawing fouls. He’s got such a high basketball IQ to go along with God-given ability.”
Skaggs, averaging right 27 points per game, exited the contest with just minutes to go with what appeared to be broken nose. According to Kidwell, the senior was headed to a local hospital to get it set.
His status is uncertain for the near future.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” Kidwell said. “We’ve got two (63rd District) seed games next week against Lewis County and Raceland, so they’re important.”
Lance Evans led the team with 12 rebounds as Russell (12-4) won the battle on the boards, 40-37.
Ashland has now dropped four of its last six games. It faces Ironton tonight.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.