Russell coach Merle Kidwell and his seniors waited what seemed like an eternity for their first Boys 16th Region Tournament victory.
Boyd County tried to upstage the Red Devils with a huge second-half comeback Wednesday night, but Russell weathered the storm for a 77-69 first-round win at Johnson Arena.
The Red Devils avenged a 20-point loss from late January by overwhelming the Lions 21-2 at the start and sinking late free throws after Boyd County charged to within 67-62 behind senior Austin Hunt.
“It feels amazing, especially after the loss at Boyd County Middle School,” said Lance Evans, one of Russell's eight seniors. “That left a bad taste in our mouth.”
It was all sweet for the Red Devils after they advanced to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2007.
“I've been waiting a long time for this,” said team leader Kyle Skaggs, one of the state's premier scorers. “We set goals. We wanted to win the All “A” (region), the (63rd) district and the region. It feels good, but we have to be ready for the next step.”
The Red Devils (26-7) will face two-time defending region champion Rowan County in tonight's second semifinal game. Ashland plays Fleming County at 6.
Skaggs enjoyed a fantastic first half with 21 points, triggering Russell to an eye-popping 42-19 lead in the marquee game of the opening round.
The senior guard was also good in the second half, finishing with 33 points highlighted by 4-of-7 shooting beyond the arc. His point total included a key layup midway through the fourth quarter after Boyd County closed to within seven.
The Lions kept coming, however, closing to 67-62 on a Tristan Burgess 3-pointer with 3:02 remaining.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Skaggs said. “We tried to come out focused in the second half, but I guess we didn't bring as much energy as we could have.”
Hunt came alive and ignited Boyd County's surge by scoring 25 of his 34 points after the intermission against his former team.
“He played like he didn't want his career to be over,” Kidwell said. “Hats off to Austin.”
Boyd County (21-12) had a chance to pull closer after the Burgess trey, but ran out of 3-point magic after hitting several from long range.
Russell followed a couple of Lions misses with an Evans putback and two Skaggs free throws to create some breathing room at 71-62 with 1:22 left.
“Kyle's just Kyle,” Kidwell said. “He kept us calm when we were making mistakes.”
Jacob Porter made four consecutive free throws in the final minute to seal it.
Kidwell picked up his first boys' regional win after coming in 0-4, including a previous coaching stint at Lewis County.
“This is special,” Kidwell said. “I'm really happy for our seniors, because they deserve it.”
Skaggs made his first trip to the regional tournament as an eighth-grader, when the Red Devils lost to Elliott County. Ashland knocked Russell out early in 2011, then Skaggs went down with an ankle injury early in last year's first-round game against East Carter.
“It's been a long road,” he said. “You've got to persevere and not lose faith. We have one of the best team characters I've ever seen. That's one of the best assets a team can have.”
Evans, a 6-foot-5 post player, dressed in his first regional game Wednesday and made the most of the opportunity with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Evans also put an exclamation point on Russell's terrific first half by hitting a 30-foot bomb in the closing seconds.
“It was a wild game,” he said with a smile. “Kyle came out hot and really got us going. They were leaving me open on the offensive board. I knew I could crash it.”
Senior Ross Lane also played a major part as Russell shot 53 percent from the field. Lane got a start at guard and came through with 16 points by hitting 7-of-8 attempts, including a couple of 3-pointers. He also had four assists.
“It's a credit to Ross,” Kidwell said. “He got sick over Christmas and was not playing, but he didn't complain. He's been great late in the season. Tonight he got a start because of matchups and had a huge game.”
Porter contributed 10 points, six rebounds and three steals, while point guard Googie Hayes had nine assists.
While Russell came out sizzling at the start, Boyd County shot 24 percent in the first half to go with nine turnovers.
“It's hard to understand,” Lions coach Randy Anderson said. “We've had three really good days of practice. They were mentally ready. I don't know if it was the atmosphere of a big game or what. Russell came out and really cut us to death in our man (defense). They were not 25-7 by happenstance.”
Anderson, however, was proud of the way his team roared back.
“This bunch has been so resilient,” he said. “I knew we were going to bring it in the second half. These seniors have been great leaders. They set such an example for our underclassmen.”
‰ Tickets for Russell’s semifinal game will be on sale today at the high school for parents of players and cheerleaders from 8 to 10 a.m. Tickets will be available to the general public at 10 a.m.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (606) 326-2671.