Rowan County boys basketball coach Shawn Thacker has been trying to tell you since about last April.
His message: don't write off the two-time defending 16th Region champion Vikings this season.
In Wednesday's first round game against 62nd District champion Morgan County, seniors Jalen Stone and Josh Barnard made Thacker sound prophetic. They combined for 33 points in a 66-50 victory at Morehead State University's Ellis T. Johnson Arena.
The Vikings meet Russell, a 77-69 winner over Boyd County last night, in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. The first game, at 6 p.m., features Ashland and Fleming County.
Thacker wasn't gloating afterward – especially because he's also seen his team unravel under pressure.
“(Wednesday) I thought it was the most poised, composed basketball that we've played all year,” he said. “We understood the time, the score and the situations much, much better.”
Stone led all scorers with 21 points, including four-of-seven from 3-point territory – from the same spot.
“Left wing, left wing, left wing,” Stone said. “ ... I'm not really a 3-point shooter before this year.”
Barnard added 12 points and 13 rebounds – numbers with which he was surprised – but last night's win might have meant the most to him of all the Vikings.
“... Last year, I was injury-prone,” Barnard said. “Foot, knee and the wrist. Having a night like this, it's just great.”
Here are some other great Rowan County numbers:
-Just four turnovers for the game.
- A 17-4 edge in bench scoring. Sophomore guard Ryne Callahan scored 13 points.
“I thought the minutes we got off the bench were huge,” Shawn Thacker said.
- Senior guard Tyler Thacker's eight assists and just one turnover.
Thacker the younger often leads the Vikings' offense, but Wednesday, not so much in the first half. He didn't score, missing all three shots and two free throws, but he did serve up five assists.
Good thing Stone, Barnard and center Matt Brown were in the first quarter. Brown and Barnard combined for seven points, and Stone added five – part of a 14-6 lead after one quarter.
Morgan County (22-8) couldn’t solve Rowan County's 2-3 zone. The Cougars — didn't score until Aleksandar Malinic's eight-footer a little more than three minutes in; went another two minutes before scoring again (Samuel Aguirre's layup); and nothing after Jordan Whitt's 18-footer with 2:17 left.
Rowan County (19-13) broke out a four-guard lineup – Thacker, Justin Graham, Callahan and Isaac Lee – to open the second quarter, and it worked. Callahan's six points in two minutes put the Vikings up, 22-9, midway through the period.
“I think you've got to respect all the kids that we put out on the floor,” Shawn Thacker said.
Morgan County (22-8) trailed by 25-18 at halftime, and it would have been worse if not for Jordan Perry and Aguirre. Thanks to Perry's two 3-pointers, Aguirre's free throw and 3-pointer, the Cougars led, 28-27, with 3:43 left in the third.
It was a lead that lasted just 18 seconds.
Besides Stone's three 3-pointers in a 13-0 run the rest of the period, Coach Thacker thought a change in defense from a 2-3 zone to a diamond-and-1 (with one player chasing Perry) kept the Cougars scoreless the final 3:43 of the period and gave the Vikings a 40-28 lead.
“They just hit some big shots,” Morgan County coach Matthew Perry said. “Jalen Stone hit three threes in that span. That's the ballgame.”
Morgan County never drew closer than nine the rest of the night. Perry led the Cougars with 12 points, followed by Aguirre with 11 and Jordan Whitt and Malinic with 10 each (Malinic also grabbed 13 rebounds).
The obvious task for Rowan County tonight would appear to be containing Russell senior guard Kyle Skaggs, who burned Boyd County for 33 points. Shawn Thacker said that's not necessarily so.
“Skaggs and company,” he said. “He's got a pretty good supporting cast.”