For The Independent
After eight years of waiting, Morgan County could not wait to celebrate its return to the 16th Region Tournament.
But their premature celebration nearly caused the near decade-long streak to continue. The Cougars held on, though, for a 63-60 defeat of Elliott County in the opening round of the 62nd District Tournament.
With three-tenths of a second remaining, Aleksandar Malinic grabbed what should have been a game-sealing rebound for the Cougars and was immediately fouled.
While walking to the free-throw line, Morgan County players inexplicably left the bench to celebrate with the five players on the floor, which resulted in a technical foul and gave Elliot County a glimmer of hope.
Malinic made one of two from the line to give Morgan County a four-point lead at 63-59.
Logan Nickell gave Elliott County a chance by also making one of two from the line, making it a one possession game.
With so little time remaining, the Lions were not able to muster anything more than a running fadeaway three that did not even draw iron as the Cougars escaped at East Carter High School.
Morgan County will play the winner of tonight’s East Carter-West Carter matchup on Thursday night at 7 p.m. for the 62nd District crown.
“We have just got to cut out the stupidity,” Morgan County coach Matthew Perry said. “There is stuff that shouldn’t be happening out here that is, and we got over-excited at the end and it nearly cost us.”
Outside of the last-second near disaster, the Cougars’ play down the stretch was anything but suspect.
Morgan County (21-7) scored on five of six possessions at one point and knock down its free throws during the final period to help keep the Lions at bay.
No two free throw attempts were bigger than those by freshman Jordan Perry. Elliott County had just cut the lead to one on a Landon Griffith driving layup, and after Perry missed the front end of the bonus.
This time the freshman steadied the nerves, toed the line, and knocked down a pair to push the Cougar lead to 62-59 with just more than 15 seconds remaining.
Overall Morgan County finished 18 of 23 from the charity stripe.
“Eighteen of 23 is big for us,” said coach Perry. “We haven’t shot free throws well all year, but tonight it was big.”
Down three, Elliott County coach Greg Adkins knew he had to get the ball into the hands of Nickell, a senior, but the play he drew up in the huddle never quite made it to the floor.
“We wanted to run him off a couple stagger screens to try and get an open look,” he said. “But we never really got it set up right, and I was yelling for a timeout, but I guess the officials never heard me.”
Instead of an open look, Nickell had to settle for a running contested three from the right wing, which glanced off the front of the rim.
While his last attempt was off the mark, Nickell made plenty of big-time plays for the Lions. None was bigger than his three at the end of the third quarter, a 26-foot bomb that gave Elliott County a two-point lead and capped off an 8-2 scoring spurt.
Nickell finished off his career with a 29-point performance.
Trailing for the first time since the opening minute of the game, Morgan County immediately responded with nine straight points to open the fourth quarter to halt the Lions’ momentum.
Morgan County made a concerted effort to get the ball to Malinic in the post in the final period, where he delivered eight big points.
“They were able to do a good job of isolating the big kid from Serbia in the post,” Adkins said. “We had done a pretty good job on him all night, but they were able to get him one-on-one in the post several times and he was able to convert.”
Malinic finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
When Malinic wasn’t scoring in the fourth quarter, it was Jordan Whitt. The senior tallied seven of his team-high 20 in the final stanza.