Johnson Central beat Campbell County on Wednesday in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen despite, according to coach Tommy McKenzie’s estimation, having its worst shooting night since December.
“When you feel like you don’t play your best game and you can survive and advance, that gives you something to play for going forward,” McKenzie said Thursday during his team’s off-day practice at Transylvania University.
That said, the Golden Eagles (26-6) know they will need a more complete effort to knock off Scott County this afternoon in the state tournament quarterfinals and earn their first-ever semifinal berth.
“They come into this state tournament highly touted as one of the favorites, and rightfully so,” McKenzie said of the Cardinals. “We know we’re gonna have our work cut out for us. They’ve got good guard play, they’ve got good size in the middle (and) they’ve got guys that can score at every position, so we’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think the guys are looking forward to it.”
Added Golden Eagles junior Kyle Gullett: “We have to go in with confidence, or we’re not gonna do anything. They’re a great team. We just have to make sure we can slow them down and stay with them.”
That’s easier said than done. Scott County, champion of the 11th Region, stands 33-3 after outlasting Fleming County, 77-66, in the first round on Wednesday. The Cardinals are averaging 74.5 points per game, led by senior guard Trent Gilbert, who was posting 25.9 points a night entering the Sweet Sixteen and hit the Panthers for 30.
“Most coaches that have played them this year have spent all their time trying to figure out how to (contain Gilbert), and it doesn’t seem like anybody has been able to figure that out yet,” McKenzie said. “So I don’t think there’s a magic pill for us as far as stopping him, but what we do have to do is make sure that if he does get 20 or 30 points, that he has to work for them … we can’t give him any easy buckets and we have to make sure we limit him as far as his free throws.
“That’s a two-fold thing for us. If we’re fouling him, then our guards are in foul trouble like they were last night and it takes us out of our rhythm, and on the other end, he’s scoring.”
Golden Eagles star senior Shane Hall will again draw a tough inside matchup. The Mr. Basketball finalist and Marshall signee posted nine points, five rebounds and five blocks against Camels sophomore Matt Wilson on Wednesday night. Tonight he’ll face Cardinals sophomore Raekwon Long, listed at 7-foot-1, who transferred to Scott County from Charlotte, N.C., over the summer.
Long had 11 points, 10 boards and seven blocks against Fleming County. He is significantly bulkier than the 6-9 Hall, but Johnson Central figures Hall has an edge in agility in that matchup — like he does most nights.
“Shane’s gotta do a better job of being more physical on both ends,” McKenzie said. “He does a really good job of getting himself up and down the floor, and that’s something we need to take a look at with Shane, is getting the ball up the floor before the defense has the opportunity to set up, and if we can do that, his chances against someone of Long’s size are better.”
Hall is looking forward to coming back strong after struggling Wednesday.
“We’re gonna look to attack the basket at first and get (Long) in foul trouble,” he said. “That way, my guards can attack and do what they’ve been doing.”
If the Cardinals focus on limiting Hall like Campbell County did, the Golden Eagles have other talent to turn to.
Gullett had 22 points and nine rebounds while Truman Salyer chipped in 15 points on Wednesday. Senior Slade McPeek is averaging 9.1 points per game and was the 15th Region Tournament MVP, though he scored one point and fouled out against the Camels.
Additionally, both Scott County and Johnson Central’s benches came up crucial on Wednesday. The Golden Eagles’ reserves, led by Salyer, outscored Campbell County’s 17-2, and the Cardinals’ backups outdid Fleming County’s 22-7.
“We try to cut to the basket when they’re double-teaming (Hall),” Salyer said. “But I expect Scott County to play tough man-to-man (and) trap everything. Just gonna take a team effort and we’ll see who comes out with it.”
Scott County coach Billy Hicks was generally complimentary of Johnson Central in a Thursday morning phone interview. He sounded prepared to take his chances with forcing any Golden Eagle other than Hall to beat his team, though.
“Well, shoot, if it comes down to Raekwon Long and Shane Hall, we’re in trouble,” Hicks said with a chuckle. “Raek’s a sophomore and Shane’s a veteran senior … when he gets going, boy, he’s a load. He can jump-stop at 10 feet as good as any kid I’ve seen in a while.”
‘What’s your legacy?’
Johnson Central is playing for its first trip to the state semifinals in school history. McKenzie has mentioned his season-long search for ways to motivate the three-time defending region champions.
“Those things are good for us,” McKenzie said. “We can look and say, ‘Hey, you guys have done something already, but you can continue to do things that no one else at your school has done. You can set a mark for your team. What is your legacy?’
“We ask our guys all the time, ‘What do you want to leave behind?’ And I think that is something that they look forward to.”
McKenzie did note, though, that particular first would be simply a byproduct of the Golden Eagles’ chase for their ultimate goal.
“Our dream since we were little is to win a state championship,” Salyer said, “and I don’t really want to stop here.”
Hall still with Herd
Hall said he was “a little surprised” to hear of Marshall coach Tom Herrion’s resignation last week, but as he waits to see who the Thundering Herd will bring in, he remains committed to Marshall.
“I thought about it a lot at first, considered going somewhere else,” Hall said, “but I think Marshall’s still probably where I’ll be going.”
Hall said he found out about Herrion’s exit by text message from other schools’ scouts – “I didn’t even hear from anyone I really knew well” – and has received at least one inquiry from a coach about reopening his recruitment.
Gullett, a junior who is averaging 15.5 points and 4.8 rebounds an outing, has had two solid games in Rupp Arena, having recorded 11 points in last year’s 75-54 loss to Ballard in the first round of the state tournament.
The goggled forward says he hasn’t received any collegiate interest to speak of yet, though. And he isn’t too worried about it.
“I’m just playing,” he said with a grin. “Just playing, and see what happens.”
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658.