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MUNFORDVILLE — Kelton “Putt-Putt” Ford’s surge ended Tuesday night, but Dustin Coulter’s recent upswing didn’t.
Facing a 2-2 box defense with a chaser specifically on him, Ford’s couldn’t extend his streak of games with at least 17 points. However, Coulter picked up the slack as the top-seeded LaRue County Hawks pulled away from the fourth-seeded Hart County Raiders, 50-28, in the Boys’ 18th District Basketball Tournament’s opening semifinal at Hart County High School.
Before the tournament started, veteran LaRue County coach Paul Childress said Coulter was “getting better every game.” The senior shooting guard showcased his rapid improvement by shooting 50 percent from the field, making all three foul shots, scoring 15 points and coming up with a game-high three steals.
“My mindset in the beginning of the season just wasn’t right as I was relying on Putt-Putt too much,” said Coulter, who scored five of his team’s first seven points Tuesday. “Now I’m relaxed, comfortable and just playing my game.”
Coulter knew his time would become, even when he was a little-used reserve last season behind Ford and the then-senior Kyles – Meredith and Sheeran – and this year behind Ford and fellow senior Gabe Shirley (who has since left the team).
“I hope he just keeps getting better,” Childress said. “He’s one of those kids who just stuck behind a bunch of good guards, but I always tell people I admire Dustin because he’s ‘old school’ in a way. He’s a hard worker and he knew his time would come. We knew about his skill level, but it was still about him believing in himself and getting stronger”
Now thrust into the role of a starter, Coulter admitted he had butterflies before facing the Raiders (10-19) for a third and final time this season. Especially since the Hawks should have crushed the Raiders in each of the previous two meetings by building 17-point leads in both games only to have to hold on down the stretch in both.
“It was nerve-racking,” Coulter said. “The whole day, I played through in my head what could or couldn’t happen. At the end, I felt our team was prepared.”
Ford was prepared to sit back for once. The star senior point guard still had a solid night – 16 points, two assists, two steals while making 10-of-12 foul shots – but the numbers just weren’t as prolific as the ones he’s put up recently. He entered with a 23.2 scoring average while attempting more than 16 shots per game.
He took just seven shots Tuesday and was prepared to let someone else lead the team.
“Dustin is stepping up like no other and I told him we both need to go out with a bang. He’s definitely doing that,” Ford said. “That takes a whole lot of pressure on me. I got chased all night and couldn’t find an open look. So I took on a passive role and Dustin took it upon himself to be aggressive and make plays.”
Coulter and Ford were the only Hawks to score more than five points, although junior forward Tyler Howell grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds. Reserve sophomore forward Caleb Sheffer and junior guard Thomas Harman combined for 12 rebounds.
LaRue County never trailed and was never tied. After Coulter and Ford combined to score their team’s first nine points, the Raiders only got within three points three times.
Hart County sophomore forward Trey Johnson hit his lone 3-pointer with 5:26 left in the first half to pull the Raiders within 14-12. LaRue County responded with a 9-0 run which was capped off by a 3 by Coulter with 2:14 left in the second quarter.
Ford hit a pair of free throws less than a minute into the second half and the Raiders never got back within single digits after that. Ford and Coulter combined to score their team’s first 10 points of the third quarter as the Hawks twice extended their lead to 16 during that span.
“Coach told us the entire game to remember what happened the last two times – that they could come back on us,” Coulter said. “So once we got up big again this time, Coach told us to step on their throats and just keep going.”
LARUECOUNTY 50, HART COUNTY 28
Hart County 7 10 2 9—28
LaRue County 11 14 12 13—50
Justin Riffle 9, Taylor Lile 5, Trey Johnson 3, Stewart Nichols 3, Caleb Bunnell 2, Alex Roten 2, Matt Scott 2, Ross Thompson 2. FG: 9-36. FT: 8-3. 3-pointers: 2-11 (Johnson 1, Riffle 1). Rebs: 21. Assists: 5. Steals: 5.
Kelton Ford 16, Dustin Coulter 15, Tyler Howell 5, Micah Wiseman 5, Kody Key-Close 4, Michael Neal 3, Caleb Sheffer 2. FG: 16-45. FT: 16-20. 3-pointers: 2-16 (Wiseman 0-6, Coulter 2-3, Ford 0-3, Key-Close 0-3, Thomas Harman 0-1). Rebs: 35 (Howell 12, Sheffer 7, Harman 5). Assists: 8 (Ford 2, Harman 2, Howell 2). Steals: 9 (Coulter 3, Ford 2, Harman 2).
UP NEXT: LaRue County plays second-seeded Caverna (16-12) or third-seeded Green County (10-19) in the 18th District Tournament final at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Nathaniel Bryancan be reached at (270) 505-1758 or email@example.com.