Rowan County's hidden gem has been a Stone.Jalen Stone is a senior, but as teammate Tyler Thacker said, "No one knew about him. No one."
Allow him to introduce himself.
In two 16th Region Tournament games, Stone has 39 points, and eight of his 12 made baskets to this juncture were 3-pointers. He had 18 points in a 53-50 win over Russell in the semifinals on Thursday night.
Needless to say, Stone is a major reason why the Vikings are playing in their third consecutive region final tonight.
“He was capable of helping us last year,” said Rowan County coach Shawn Thacker. “He just wasn’t ready.”
Coach Thacker recalled his first glimpse of Stone a few years back in a basketball camp at Rowan County Middle School.
“I saw this long-haired kid with glasses, skinny as a rail, but athletic as all get-out,” said the coach, who is trying to become the 10th coach in region history (dating back to 1922) to guide his team to three consecutive region titles.
Stone, though, had some self-admitted issues with his studies. He skipped out on practices and workouts often, and even missed school frequently.
“I had a problem with coming to school, and coming to practice,” Stone said.
Playing very sparingly on the varsity team last year, Stone said he didn’t really feel included on the
region championship bunch.
Stone made a life-altering decision to become a better student and player, and it’s worked out beautifully.
“I put in a lot of work,” Stone said. “We had to have everybody stepping up, so I knew I had to step my game up.”
“This year he’s all in,” Tyler Thacker added.
Coach Thacker was patient throughout Stone’s growth process.
“He’s a very sharp kid,” Thacker said. “He’s not missed a day of practice this season.”
The prospect of winning tonight thrilled Stone, inducing an eyebrow raise and a smile.
“It’d be the sweetest, because I’m actually a part of it,” he said.
Five is Alive
The 61st District has produced more sequels than the Nightmare on Elm Street series.
Fleming County, which defeated Ashland 81-72 on Thursday, and Rowan County will meet for the region crown tonight at 7.
Tyler Thacker hopes the nightmare is over for Rowan County. The Vikings have fallen to Fleming County in each of the previous four meetings this season.
“If we take good shots, I like our chances,” Thacker said. “Last game, we had 23 turnovers and we were still in the game. They force you into so many bad shots.
“They give us the hardest matchup in the region, by far,” he continued. “They pressure us really good.”
Fleming County’s Brady Saunders said that while Rowan County will have played three games in three days when it’s all over, the Panthers did experience a two-overtime game that will help negate their day off Wednesday.
“I think we’re going to be pretty even,” Saunders said. “We'll come in with sore legs but we're going to keep fighting.”
Don't Forget the Shot
Logan Salow had Ashland fans flashing back to last season with an unbelievable 3-pointer from the right corner to send the Tomcats and Fleming County to double overtime.
Senior Zach Hart said he immediately thought of former Tomcat Corey Gregg's triple from nearly the exact same spot that sent Ashland to OT in an eventual defeat of Fleming County during last year's tournament.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking about, Corey hitting that shot,” Hart said. “Same team, same spot, same everything.”
Said Salow, also a senior, of the play: “I said, ‘Coach, I want to come off this screen.’ We ran it once, they fouled us. I said, ‘I want it again.’ I came off of it. I have no idea how that went in.”
The way it rimmed out, glanced off the glass and through the net may have some Kentucky fans remembering Patrick Sparks’ bomb that boosted to Kentucky to an extra period against Michigan State in the 2005 Elite Eight.
Fleming County and Ashland played in just the eighth 2OT contest in 16th Region Tournament history. The most recent before Thursday was a 2009 first-round affair between Lewis County and Fairview.
Fleming County improved to 4-0 in overtime games this season.
The Panthers emerged from two double-OT games in December, beating Rowan County and Paducah Tilghman. They also downed Lewis County in OT.
Russell’s eight seniors won’t forget what happened on Thursday.
“It’s going to sting for a while,” said Kyle Skaggs.
They also won’t forget the season as a whole. Russell won the 16th Region All “A” Classic and the 63rd District Tournament. The Red Devils won a region tournament game for the first time since 2007. They finished with 26 wins.
“It was the best season of my life,” said point guard Googie Hayes. “I wouldn't rather lose with any other team than this team.”
Ross Lane, a senior who blossomed from a reserve seeing mop-up minutes into a dependable player in a key role, said the closeness of the team helped him perform at a high level. He was 7 of 8 from the field in the Devils’ first-round win over Boyd County. He had 10 points on Thursday.
Highly regarded Andrew Wiggins and Huntington Prep will be playing on Saturday afternoon at Boyd County Middle School.
Huntington Prep meets United Leadership Academy of Canada at 2 p.m.
“We wanted to give Kentucky fans one last look (at Wiggins),” coach Rob Fulford told the Herald-Leader.
This game replaces Huntington Prep's recently canceled matchup in Louisville with Monteverde Academy.
It will be the sixth time Wiggins and Huntington Prep have played in Kentucky.
Wiggins has narrowed his list of schools to Kentucky, Florida State, North Carolina and Kansas. He made an official visit to UK on Wednesday.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.