MOREHEAD In the pursuit of history, Ashland keeps putting opponents in its rearview mirror.
The Tomcats won their 33rd game of the season, without a defeat, while achieving the school’s 33rd region title all-time on Tuesday night. Ashland extended its winning streak to five in the games that matter the most and earned its second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen with an 84-60 victory over Lewis County at Johnson Arena at Morehead State University.
Tomcats coach Jason Mays said his team has handled the weight of an undefeated record with great maturity. The load they have shouldered won’t seem as heavy when they head to Lexington for another appearance at Rupp Arena. Ashland will play Elizabethtown next Wednesday at about 1:30.
“Yeah, I think the shoulders are a little lighter,” Mays said. “Now we’re going to an environment where everything is equal. We are going to play teams that don’t know anything about us. We have been beating each other up in the 16th Region since December. It does feel lighter which is good for us. … It’s a different ball game now. We had to recalibrate our mentality going into districts after the regular season. We are going to redevelop our mindset as we go to Lexington next week.”
Senior Ethan Hudson said the Tomcats have felt no outside pressure between the lines during their run. Ashland extended the pressure to the Lions, holding them to just two points in the first frame during a 23-2 opening blitz.
“We put pressure on us every day to be as good as we can be,” Hudson said. “We put pressure on ourselves and put pressure on the opponents when we are out there. Nothing outside the locker room puts pressure on us.”
The Tomcats started red-hot from behind the arc, hitting seven treys that jump-started a record shooting night. Ashland connected on 17 3s and shattered the region mark set by Rowan County in 2017.
Ethan Sellars hit three from downtown in the opening eight minutes and Cole Villers hit two more on his way to a game-high 26 points.
“The last game I didn’t shoot very well,” Villers said. “In this game, whenever I can see it go through, it was a big momentum shift for me. That was big to get me going.”
Added Hudson: “We are always feeling good. We feel like our shots are always going to go in. Some nights they don’t, but we stay confident all the time. There was nothing really different about tonight. We were out there shooting like we always do.”
Lewis County coach Joe Hampton marveled at the Tomcats’ shooting performance.
“I didn’t feel like the pressure was on us at all,” Hampton said. “They played like there was zero. The way they shot the basketball tonight, nobody in this region is going to beat them. I don’t know if many teams around the state will beat them. I don’t know if you can duplicate that on another night. Unfortunately, we caught them at the right time. They were 17 of 27. We can’t do that in practice with nobody guarding us
“A two-point quarter to start, you can’t do that against a team that can score like Ashland,” Hampton added. “We did bounce back but it was too big a hill to climb.”
Sam O’Keefe, the KABC 16th Region Player of the Year, averaged 29.5 points through the first two games of the tournament but didn’t get his first buckets until early in the second quarter. The Tomcats defensive game plan put Justin Bradley on the Lions star.
“I personally love taking on the challenge of guarding the best player,” Bradley said, “because I feel like where I’m at my best and I’m the most focused. I love that task.”
Ashland (33-0) placed three players in double figures. Sellars splashed in four from downtown and recorded 16 points. Colin Porter tallied a double-double with 11 points and 11 assists on his way to being named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
“He’s the maestro,” Mays said of Porter. “He is the conductor of the orchestra. Everybody feeds off his rhythm. If it’s a transition push, everybody is a step quicker. If it’s a set or ball-screen play, everybody slides to their spots. There is a rhythm he sets without saying a word. … He has changed the dynamic of our team. It has trickled down. He makes Hunter Gillum better, and Hunter, more importantly, has made Colin better.”
Porter dished the ball to Villers and Bradley for open 3s to close out an impressive first half. The Tomcats took a 55-26 lead into the locker room. The margin eventually grew to 72-42 in the third quarter after a triple before the game was played with a running clock in the final frame.
The second straight trip to the Rupp Arena hardwood means a lot to the Tomcats after a 17-year region title drought. They are cementing their place in Ashland lore.
“We grew up hearing about the tradition of Ashland since we were little kids,” Hudson said. “To be a part of two groups that are starting to bring that back around here, that’s really big for us.”
“It’s really big for the community,” Villers added. “We are pulling for each other. We love each other and we love this community.”
O’Keefe had a team-high 13 points for Lewis County (18-16). Logan Liles and Kolby McCann each had 11.
“I couldn’t ask for more out of this basketball team,” Hampton said. “I am very proud of them. They didn’t quit. There were some tough times. They just kept chopping wood.”
Ashland now sets its sights on extending the Tomcats’ most important win streak to nine at the state tournament.
“(The key is) not deviating from who we are,” Mays said. “You can tweak who you are. Make some adjustments but never go backwards. Only forward.”
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ASHLAND FG FT REB TP
Porter 2-4 5-5 1 11
Sellars 5-8 2-4 2 16
Villers 9-14 3-3 6 26
Bradley 2-5 0-0 1 6
Hudson 2-3 2-2 2 8
Atkins 1-1 0-0 0 2
Ashby 0-2 0-0 0 0
Phillips 1-1 0-0 0 2
Gillum 1-1 0-0 0 2
Davis 0-0 0-0 0 0
Adkins 1-1 0-0 1 2
Freize 1-1 0-0 0 2
Reeves 0-1 1-2 0 1
TOTALS 27-44 13-16 16 84
FG Pct: 61.4. FT Pct; 81.3. 3-point FGs: 17-27 (Porter 2-3, Sellars 4-5, Villers 5-8, Bradley 2-4, Hudson 2-3, Ashby 0-2, Conway 2-2) PF: 15. Fouled out: Phillips. Turnovers: 9. Technical: Phillips.
LEWIS CO. FG FT REB TP
Thomas 2-6 2-3 4 6
Liles 4-7 2-2 2 11
McCann 4-6 3-3 2 11
Yates 1-5 0-0 2 3
O’Keefe 5-7 2-3 6 13
Burriss 0-0 0-0 0 0
Jordan 1-1 1-2 2 3
Hardy 0-1 0-0 0 0
Collins 0-0 0-0 0 0
Gilbert 1-2 0-0 3 2
Gerike 1-5 2-2 1 4
Sizemore 1-1 0-0 0 2
Spencer 1-1 0-2 2 2
Jordan 1-1 0-0 0 3
Blankenship 0-1 0-0 0 0
TOTALS 22-44 12-17 25 60
FG Pct: 50.0. FT Pct: 70.6. 3-point FGs: 4-10 (Thomas 0-1, Liles 1-2, Yates 1-4, O’Keefe 1-1, Jordan 1-1, Blankenship 0-1) PF: 16. Fouled out: Yates. Turnovers: 13. Technical: Yates, Sizemore.
ASHLAND 23 32 21 8 — 84
LEWIS CO. 2 24 13 21 — 60