MOREHEAD Cole Villers and the unbeaten Ashland Tomcats picked up where they left off in last year’s 16th Region Tournament at Morehead State University.
Villers, a sophomore guard, nailed four 3-pointers during the second quarter as the Tomcats took control in a 61-41 first-round victory over Russell.
Last March, Villers and teammate Ethan Sellars came out red-hot from long range against Boyd County in the championship game. The Tomcats won 59-43 and went on to reach the Sweet Sixteen’s Elite Eight.
It took Villers a little longer to get rolling this time. But he bunched 16 of his 17 points into the second period as Ashland carried a 38-19 lead into the locker room.
“The first quarter I missed a couple of layups and a 3,” Villers said. “My teammates just found me in the second quarter. Russell was playing a zone and we exploited areas of weakness. We kicked it out and I had some open 3s.”
Ashland’s defense took a lead role with a dozen steals in sending the team into Monday’s semifinals against Rowan County, a 56-36 winner over East Carter.
Russell had four leads in the early minutes — the last at 9-7 on a Charlie Jachimczuk basket.
Ashland responded with a 15-0 run triggered by a flurry of steals and other pressure-induced Red Devil miscues. One steal led to a Justin Bradley three-point play, then Ethan Hudson hit a 3-ball following a Russell turnover in the backcourt.
“We put our press on and it really did the job,” Tomcats coach Jason Mays said. “I should have done that more the second time we played them (51-46 at Russell on Feb. 14). We had to find ways to create tempo. We were able to speed them up, force them into discombobulation plays.”
Russell, down 15-9 after the first eight minutes, added to Ashland’s momentum with an incorrect scorebook technical foul between quarters.
Villers made both free throws. The ensuing inbound play finished with Villers connecting on his first trey of the night. son capped the surge with a layup generated by a takeaway.
“Obviously we turned the basketball over too much when Ashland got out in front,” Russell coach Tom Barrick said. “We knew they would have to force the issue. Our kids were prepared, we just didn’t take care of the ball well enough. They did a good job getting a couple of deflections and they are very good at turning those into points.”
The Tomcats scored 15 off Russell’s 13 first-half turnovers. Villers and Colin Porter each had three steals at the midway point. Backup guard Hunter Gillum added a couple more on his way to a six-point, three-swipe night.
“When you’re talking about an offensive team that scores as much as they do, and you give them extra possessions, it’s difficult to overcome,” Barrick said.
Ashland led by as much as 21 points in the third quarter. Russell cut it to 54-37 on Tristan Miller’s two baskets early in the fourth quarter, so the Tomcats began running off chunks of the clock before shooting.
“It’s a good feeling,” Villers said after the Tomcats cleared their first-round hurdle. “Last year the games were real close. I just think we have a lot of momentum going forward.”
The Tomcats, now 31-0, were the first 30-game winner entering the region tournament since Sandy Hook in 1969.
Porter chipped in 13 points and six assists. Sellars and Hudson each scored 10 as the Tomcats continued to work the ball diligently to set up scoring opportunities.
“It’s such a mature team,” Mays said. “Our guys are selfless and humble. They played under control.”
Russell (12-16) made big strides this season in a new system after dropping five of their first six games against tough competition.
“We started with five seniors and finished with five seniors,” Barrick said. “Not everything went the way they wanted or we wanted, but they were there through the trials and tribulations and showed great character. I’m very appreciative of them and all they’ve done for the program.”
Miller and Charlie Bechtel, both among that group, led the team with nine and eight points, respectively.
Tickets for Ashland’s semifinal game will be on sale Saturday at Ashland Blazer beginning at 11 a.m.
Between the first and second quarters, retiring Ashland athletic director Mark Swift was recognized for his 22 years of service. Swift received a stained glass award — bearing a block ‘A’ — from Dicky Martin, Chuck Rist, Ashland principal Jamie Campbell and tournament director Tim Rhodes, MSU’s director of enrollment services.
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RUSSELL FG FT REB TP
Jachimczuk 3-6 1-1 7 7
Bell 3-8 0-0 1 7
Miller 4-8 0-0 3 9
Cantrell 1-1 0-0 4 2
Bechtel 3-6 2-4 6 8
Downs 3-6 0-0 0 6
Goodman 1-1 0-0 2 2
Anderson 0-0 0-0 1 0
Quinn 0-0 0-0 0 0
Moore 0-0 0-0 0 0
McClelland 0-0 0-0 0 0
TOTALS 18-36 3-5 26 41
FG Pct.: 50.0. FT Pct.: 60.0. 3-point FGs: 2-8 (Miller 1-5, Bell 1-3). PF: 10. Fouled out: None. Turnovers: 16.
ASHLAND FG FT REB TP
Porter 6-9 0-0 4 13
Sellars 3-5 2-3 3 10
Hudson 3-7 2-2 2 10
Villers 5-13 3-4 7 17
Bradley 2-5 1-1 0 5
Atkins 0-1 0-0 0 0
Gillum 3-5 0-2 2 6
Ashby 0-0 0-0 0 0
Conway 0-0 0-0 0 0
Phillips 0-0 0-0 0 0
Davis0-0 0-0 0 0
Adkins 0-0 0-0 0 0
TOTALS 22-45 8-12 19 61
FG Pct.: 48.9. FT Pct.: 66.7. 3-point FGs: 9-24 (Porter 1-3, Sellars 2-4, Villers 4-8, Bradley 0-3, Hudson 2-4, Atkins 0-1, Gillum 0-1). PF: 9. Fouled out: None. Turnovers: 7.
RUSSELL 9 10 14 8 — 41
ASHLAND 15 23 13 10 — 61
Technical foul: Russell (scorebook error).