BOYS’ PREP BASKETBALL: Panthers begin key district stretch (1/13)

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By Chuck Jones

The race for the top seed in the 17th District starts to heat up, especially for the Elizabethtown Panthers.

After Friday night’s 65-57 victory over Central Hardin, the Panthers are 2-0 in the district and have back-to-back district games, playing at Fort Knox today and at North Hardin on Tuesday. Four of their next five games are against district foes.

“This year, seeding might be more important,” Elizabethtown coach James Haire said. “Seeding comes into play every year. But from day-to-day, you don’t know what you’re going to face. Fort Knox and North are capable of beating anyone. I want us to come out and play strong. That’s my hope.”

It’s crowded at the top of the district standings. The John Hardin Bulldogs, who are 3-0 in district play, have a half-game lead over Elizabethtown, while Fort Knox, which is 2-1, is a half-game behind the Panthers.

The Eagles are coming off an impressive 68-67 victory over North Hardin on Friday night to sweep the season series for the first time since the 1991-92 season. Their only district loss came to John Hardin in the second week of the season, a 67-61 setback.

“We don’t match up well with them,” Haire said. “It’s like they have five guards on the floor all the time. They all can shoot and handle the ball.”

What concerns Haire is Fort Knox’s ability to shoot 3-pointers. Entering tonight’s game, the Eagles (5-7) are hitting 37.1 percent from 3-point range. Six players – seniors Michael Armstead, Kyle Gibson, Chris Jackson, Tier Blanco and Michael Powell and junior Tarik James – have made 10 or more. All six are shooting 32 percent or better on 3s.

“They hit a bunch of 3s,” Haire said. “The thing is even if you get a lead, they can hit a bunch of 3s and get right back in it. It’s important for us to concentrate on our man and know where their shooters are. We can’t get into a rush and start trying to shoot 3s. We have to play a fundamentally sound game.”

While Elizabethtown (9-4) might not be able to match Fort Knox in terms of shooters, the Panthers have a potent offense with seniors Nic McDonald, Ja’Von Cotton and Dominique Harding all scoring more than 12 points per game. Harding, a 6-foot-6 center, could be the most vital considering his height advantage in the paint.

Elizabethtown has won two consecutive games since a 71-57 loss at Taylor County and four of its last five. Haire was pleased with how the Panthers played in wins this past weekend, but wants to see more consistency.

“I saw a little more intensity from us,” Haire said. “But we have to have it for longer periods of time. We have to be able to put four quarters together. We played two really good first and second quarters, but we have to sustain that a little longer.”

Fort Knox coach Kip Rambo said he isn’t putting any more emphasis on this game.

“We have to take it one game at a time,” Rambo said. “E’town’s probably the best team in our district at this point. They’re always solid.”

Rambo said the Eagles rely on their shooting, but will need to do other things well to put themselves in position to beat the Panthers.

“We have to put the ball in the hole,” Rambo said. “That’s really what it comes down to. We have to shoot the ball well. But we have to do a good job of protecting the ball and boxing out because we don’t have much size. We have to do the fundamental things right.”

Elizabethtown is in the midst of a tough stretch, but after Tuesday’s game against North Hardin, the Panthers will have six days off before hosting John Hardin on Jan. 21.

District victories are hard to come by, but road wins in the district are even rarer. That’s why Haire believes this week is vital if the Panthers are going to have a shot at the top seed.

“It’s an important week for us,” Haire said. “Winning on the road is important. We are going to have to play well in order to win. It’s different playing at Fort Knox than anywhere else. You can’t look around at the surroundings. You have to concentrate on the floor.

“We play four games in five days,” he added. “That’s what you usually have to do to win tournaments. You have to be able to play back-to-back sometimes. We do this for a reason.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.