With postseason play just around the corner, Russell and Ashland locked up in a battle loaded with tournament-type intensity and atmosphere.
One streak continued and another ended as Russell held off the Tomcats 63-59 on Friday night.
The Red Devils celebrated Senior Night before opening tipoff and then extended their winning streak in Marvin Meredith Gymnasium to 20 games.
Senior post player Lance Evans was largely responsible, thanks to his career night. One of eight Russell seniors honored, Evans registered game highs of 22 points and 13 rebounds as his team put the brakes on Ashland’s eight-game winning streak.
“Packed house, Senior Night, 20 in a row, this is awesome,” Evans said. “That home streak is a pretty big feat. I was not here for all of it, but I was here for the end. I’m loving every minute of it.”
The 6-foot-5, 220-pounder didn’t have much of a varsity career until this season. He suffered a broken leg in football as a junior while playing for Boyd County and didn’t make it onto the basketball court until late in the season.
Evans transferred to Russell last spring, playing quarterback and taking over an inside role for the basketball squad.
Averaging 9.3 points and eight rebounds at game time, Evans provided a huge lift on a night when the Red Devils were missing point guard Googie Hayes and didn’t get their customary offense from guards Kyle Skaggs and Jacob Porter.
Evans shot 8-of-11 from the field along with grabbing some timely offensive rebounds.
“Lance had a monster game,” Russell coach Merle Kidwell said. “It’s a shame this is his first real year of varsity play. He’s making the most of it. He’s what this team needed as a player and a teammate.”
Evans also connected on a 3-pointer from the corner to help send the Red Devils out to a 17-point lead in the first half.
Russell (23-7) led by 14 early in the fourth quarter before having to withstand an Ashland comeback down the stretch.
The Tomcats cut it to 50-44 on a Dikembe Dixson basket midway through the final period. After neither team scored for two minutes, Russell’s Skaggs went to the foul line and uncharacteristically missed both attempts.
Evans snatched the rebound, however, and was fouled while hitting a tough follow shot. He then completed the three-point play.
“On the missed free throw, Dikembe went in for the rebound,” Evans said. “It was just a good bounce to me. There’s nothing he could have done about it. I thought he was going to block my shot, but I was able to get it off and into the basket. It was a big momentum thing.”
Ashland used fullcourt pressure to keep applying heat and pulled as close as 59-57 on Tyler Stewart’s three-point play with 25 seconds remaining.
The Tomcats then fouled Porter, who sank both free throws. Evans and Skaggs each made one of two attempts in the last eight seconds as Russell prevailed.
“Give Ashland credit,” Kidwell said. “(Ashland coach) Buddy (Biggs) has changed how their team plays (shifting from man-to-man pressure to a 2-3 zone lately). They went back to their bread and butter late in the game and it gave them a spark. We missed Googie, who is our one-man press breaker.”
Hayes sat out the game for disciplinary reasons, leaving Porter to handle most of the ballhandling duties.
The Red Devils received a spark from senior guard Ross Lane, who came off the bench to hit two 3-pointers in the first quarter on the way to an 11-point, six-rebound night.
“I was just feeling it,” Lane said. “Our student section was really loud. Beating Ashland on Senior Night is probably one of the most memorable moments of my high school career. It’s awesome. I wouldn’t want to play with any other team. We have good chemistry.”
Skaggs finished with 13 points and went over 2,500 for his high school career.
“This was a good way for our seniors to go out, but they know Monday night’s the big one (district opener),” Kidwell said.
Dixson led Ashland with 19 points, including a flying jam in transition to help ignite Ashland’s fourth-quarter rally. Logan Salow and Zach Hart each scored 11 for the Tomcats (20-9).
“Our kids didn’t quit,” Biggs said. “When you are down 17 in the first half, you can either fight or get blown out. I think we played the best team in the region tonight. It’s good that we played them tooth and nail on their home court.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.