With his team staring at a gaping halftime deficit, Ashland coach Buddy Biggs issued a multiple choice test.
The Tomcats had a 50-50 chance of passing.
“You’ve got two choices in that situation,” Biggs said. “You either quit or come back ... You man up or go home.”
What did they do? “They manned up,” said the coach.
Ashland went on a defense-fueled rally to fall just short, 73-67, against Mason County on Friday night at Anderson Gym. The Tomcats trailed 47-24 at halftime.
“During halftime, Coach was like, we’ve got to go out there and hustle and at least try to get back in it,” said 6-foot-6 sophomore Dikembe Dixson.
Dixson took initiative to lead the transformation. He scored 12 of his 27 total points in a frenetic third quarter for Ashland — he also tallied 10 total rebounds.
Dixson charged into the lane twice for putbacks plus-one. He later sprinted to the basket after a turnover and received a fine pass from Damantie Thornton and promptly finished to cut the Mason County lead to 53-43.
Nick Miller’s 3-pointer as time expired in the third period pulled Ashland to within seven, at 53-46.
“The third quarter’s been our Achilles’ heel all year except for tonight,” Biggs said. “Tonight, it was the first quarter. We lost the game in the first quarter ... no intensity, no fight in our game early.”
Mason County (11-5) surged to a 24-7 start after eight minutes of play. It used its zone defense effectively and racked up 3-pointers like they were going out of style. The Royals were 5 of 7 from long range in the first quarter.
They continued their hot shooting throughout the half, all while holding the Tomcats to no field goals for a six-minute stretch. Dixson broke the cold spell with a bucket at the 4:39 mark of the second quarter.
Several Royals played a hand in what head coach Chris O’Hearn called his team’s best of the season. Overall, four players cracked double figures with Cameron Frame and Lucas Greenhill each accounting for a team-high 11 points. Shawn Johnson posted a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
“We’d like to bottle that first half,” O’Hearn said. “Unfortunately we’re young and very inconsistent, therefore it didn’t last until the second half.”
Ashland (11-6) was finally able to establish its full-court press, which rushed the Royals’ shots at times. Mason County made just two buckets in the third.
The Tomcats sliced the deficit to four, at 68-64, with exactly one minute left on a Tyler Stewart free throw. They never cut it any closer, though, as Mason County drained 11 of its final 12 foul shots.
Both coaches came away somewhat satisfied.
“We’d given a couple games away this year that were the exact situation,” said O’Hearn, referring to the Royals’ large lead early. “We showed some growth in that area tonight.”
Said Biggs about his group: “I think they were a little embarrassed at the half, and they should have been. We were on them pretty hard (at halftime). We were challenging them to stand up and fight together.”
Zach Hart was key to the rally, too, as he nailed four total 3-pointers en route to an 18-point, six-rebound night.
Thornton, a freshman who missed three weeks with meningitis, has been dominant on the junior varsity level, said Biggs, and he played a pivotal role with his defensive pressure on Friday.
Miller finished with 10 points for the Tomcats, who are on the road tonight against Tug Valley — the No. 4 team in Class 2A in West Virginia.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.