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When Elizabethtown junior guard Ja’Von Cotton released a 3-pointer in the final seconds, John Hardin sophomore guard Elijah Smith admitted he had a bad feeling.
When the ball bounced off the rim, John Hardin senior point guard Brandon Price didn’t feel a sense of relief, but his first thought was to knock the ball away so the Panthers couldn’t get another chance.
The plan worked. The top-seeded Bulldogs avoided an upset and held on for a thrilling 62-60 victory over the fourth-seeded Panthers in the Boys’ 17th District Basketball Tournament semifinals Wednesday night at John Hardin’s Dawg Pound.
“Definitely a sense of relief,” said Price, who scored 21 points and dished out six assists. “It was a hard-fought win. Coach (James) Haire’s a great coach and we knew they’d have a good game plan. But that’s what the postseason is all about: survive and advance.”
The seventh-ranked and defending district champion Bulldogs (24-3) advance to meet second-seeded North Hardin (22-7) in the district championship at 7 Friday night. It’s the third consecutive year John Hardin has been in the final and the seventh time since 2005.
Price hit 1-of-2 free throws with 13.2 seconds remaining. Elizabethtown didn’t have a timeout. Junior Nic McDonald dribbled to the left side and handed off to Cotton on the wing. Cotton dribbled to the top of the key and launched a 3-pointer.
The ball bounced off the rim and Elizabethtown sophomore Zane Najdawi looked to have the rebound, but Price batted the ball away. The buzzer sounded as the ball bounced near midcourt.
“I was scared when he first shot it,” said Smith, who came off the bench to score 11 points. “I didn’t know if I should foul him or not. I was scared. But we didn’t let the pressure get to us.”
Elizabethtown (16-14) was in the opposite position this season. Last year, the Panthers were the top seed and lost in the district semifinals to fourth-seeded North Hardin, 61-58.
“It’s disappointing,” said McDonald, who scored 13 points. “But I’m glad with the way we played. We played our heart out. This leaves a bad taste in our mouth and this will motivate us to keep working hard.”
Despite beating the Panthers twice in the regular season, John Hardin coach Mark Wells said he didn’t feel comfortable facing Elizabethtown again.
“From the moment we found out who we were playing, we started prepping for E’town,” Wells said. “I think we spent two weeks preparing for them. I think we took away their inside game in the first half, but we didn’t in the second half. I think you have to give a lot of credit to E’town. We had a chance in the first half to pull away, but they really battled.”
The Panthers trailed by eight in the first quarter and 10 in the second before rallying to take a 40-39 lead after three quarters. They led 46-43 before John Hardin senior Daveon Greene scored four straight points.
But Elizabethtown responded as Najdawi converted a three-point play and senior Chas Jones made 1-of-2 free throws to give the Panthers a 50-47 lead with 4:40 left.
The Bulldogs didn’t have an answer for Najdawi, especially in the second half. He finished with 26 points and 17 rebounds.
“I was just trusting the guards to get me the ball,” Najdawi said. “It just hurts. But we just have to get back in the gym and get better.”
Just when it appeared the Bulldogs were vulnerable with Price and Greene both with four fouls and trailing, they quickly answered. Price drained a 3-pointer and then he dished to Smith for a baseline 3-pointer. After a turnover, Price fed junior guard Patrick Anderson for a layup to give the Bulldogs a 55-50 lead with 3:26 left.
“He’s clutch,” Wells said of Price. “He has a heart like you won’t believe. Just hearing him talk during the timeouts, he was always so positive. That’s the true sign of a leader. He didn’t allow the team to get down even when we were behind. That’s the thing I’m most proud.”
John Hardin built a 58-52 lead with 1:23 remaining when Smith connected on his third 3-pointer, but the Panthers clawed their way back, slicing the lead to 61-60 on a McDonald 3-pointer.
“I think we had a couple turnovers and they hit some big shots,” Haire said. “I have nothing negative to say about my team. They battled so hard. I’m so proud of their effort. We’ve been under the gun all year and we’ve never had all the guys healthy at the same time. We played a tough schedule and that got us ready for this moment. We just came up a little bit short.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.