Rowan County did it again.
And the Vikings did it as a team.
Rowan County came back from a nine-point halftime deficit to defeat Russell 53-50 in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals on Thursday at Ellis T. Johnson Arena.
It’s the third straight season Rowan County has reached the 16th Region championship game.
“The good Lord has blessed me to have great kids and great players,” said Rowan County coach Shawn Thacker. “I think our style of play fits the (college) court a little bit. I think it lends itself to success.”
In the first half, Rowan County’s system seemed to struggle — the Vikings shot just 28.6 percent from the floor.
“It was lack of ball movement, lack of good decision-making on the shots,” Thacker said. “Credit to Russell, too, they are a really good basketball team. Really solid defensively.”
Russell took advantage of Rowan County’s poor shooting, as Kyle Skaggs looked to take over the game with 13 first-half points, including 10 in the second period alone.
Behind Skaggs, the Red Devils went on an 8-2 run to end the second half and built a 28-19 lead.
“I thought we did a great job distancing ourselves to end the first half,” said Russell coach Merle Kidwell. “I thought we were in good shape.”
Rowan County answered Russell’s run by opening the third period with a 10-2 run.
By the end of the third, the Vikings had a 38-36 lead and wouldn’t relinquish it the rest of the game.
Vikings senior Jalen Stone scored eight of his 13 second-half points in the third period. Stone finished with a team-leading 18 points.
“We couldn’t let Russell win the first four minutes of the second half,” Stone said. “I’m a senior and I didn’t want this to be my last game, so I had to step up.”
After shooting 28.6 percent in the first half, Rowan County stepped up its offensive game in the second — the Vikings shot a staggering 54.2 percent.
Kidwell could only watch as Rowan’s shots continued to fall over the outstretched hands of his defense.
“Stone made some deep threes and made one contested over Skaggs,” Kidwell said. “It’s a tale of two halves — they shot poor in the first and we did in the second.”
Rowan County sophomore Ryne Callahan added huge minutes off the bench and added 11 points.
Thacker said it’s been like that the whole season with this team — everyone finds a way to contribute.
“Who’s my star?” Thacker said. “We’ve shown what happens when kids work together and know their responsibilities, and it’s taken a while for us to get there, but it’s nice to watch us finally grow up and understand those things.”
At different points in the second half, various Vikings stepped up to make a big play.
Rowan County locked down Skaggs — after he scored 13 in the first half — and allowed him only seven points in the second half.
Thacker credits that to the defense of bench players Callahan and Justin Graham.
“I thought Ryne and Justin were really good on Skaggs in the second half,” Thacker said. “That’s the commodity of having a bench that you can use to change the look of your team.”
After Russell got Rowan County’s lead down to one with just over a minute left, Callahan found Josh Barnard under the basket.
He made the layup, was fouled and then made the foul shot to give Rowan County a four-point lead.
“How big has he been the last two nights?” Thacker said. “I thought (Wednesday) was his best game of the season and tonight in the second half he stepped up big.”
The final backbreaking play came when Russell was down by four and Graham found himself on the free-throw line.
He missed the shot, but got his own rebound and scored on a layup.
“I saw it miss hard off the rim and I didn’t know which side of the rim it was going to come off,” Graham said. “So I guessed and I guessed right.”
As Rowan County started to gain momentum, Russell struggled to take advantage of opportunities.
Late in the fourth quarter, Russell had one possession on which it attempted three shots.
“We had open looks,” Kidwell said. “We had a lot of chances to get the lead back, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Ross Lane finished with 10 points for Russell (26-8) and Johnny McGuire finished with seven points and seven rebounds.
The game marks the last for eight Russell seniors, who at one time were picked to finish 16th in the region early in their careers.
“We were hoping it would end in Rupp Arena but that’s how it goes,” Kidwell said. “It’s tough to see kids who aren’t emotional get emotional after a loss. Youth get a bad knock for not caring enough, but this group cared a lot.”
Rowan County (20-13) will meet Fleming County for the fifth time this season for the region championship tonight. Tipoff is at 7.
The Vikings have lost all four previous times, including the 61st District championship game. But Thacker is thrilled to have one more chance.
“I’ll trade all four of those losses for this one win,” Thacker said.