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District championship games might lack the emotion and drama of the semifinals because both teams realize their place in the region tournament is secure despite the outcome.
But that wasn’t the case for the Elizabethtown Panthers, especially their seniors after back-to-back heartbreaking losses in the Boys’ 17th District Tournament semifinals the last two years.
The Panthers were a team on a mission, not satisfied with merely getting a berth in the Boys’ 5th Region Tournament. Only senior Nic McDonald remains from Elizabethtown’s 2011 district championship squad, so the seniors wanted to make sure they added to the program’s rich tradition before graduating.
Elizabethtown’s 75-69 victory over the John Hardin Bulldogs on Saturday night in the championship at Bruin Gym erased the bad memories of the previous years. It was easy to tell this wasn’t another game, but an opportunity to accomplish something special.
“We really wanted this,” Elizabethtown senior guard Ja’Von Cotton said. “Some people will say district championships don’t mean anything or it doesn’t matter. It meant something to us. This game mattered to us.”
Not that it didn’t matter to John Hardin, because the Bulldogs played just as hard. Elizabethtown, though, was the better team.
The Panthers made more plays when they needed to, getting contributions in some form or fashion from every player Elizabethtown coach James Haire put in the game. This was the definition of a team victory.
“We found out a lot about ourselves,” Haire said. “They took away a lot of what we wanted to do offensively and defensively. It seems like every time we play them (this year) it’s getting tougher. But we had guys step up when we had to have them.”
The seniors certainly did that.
McDonald, who scored a game-high 26 points, seemed to make basket after basket when the Panthers needed one. He sparked a third-quarter surge to help them build a 15-point lead, and then made eight free throws in the final 2:04 to secure the win.
Cotton had a miserable district tournament in terms of shooting, but he came through in the clutch, much like he did against North Hardin in the semifinals. After John Hardin cut the lead to three in the fourth quarter, Cotton scored eight points, including draining two 3-pointers – his only two of the night – in a span of 1:43 to give the Panthers a 62-53 lead.
Senior guard Ryan Harris was a big part of Cotton’s run. He was able to drive past his defender, forcing the Bulldogs to rotate defensively which left Cotton open. Two of his four assists came on Cotton’s 3s. Harris does a lot of things that usually don’t show up in a boxscore, but this game wasn’t one of them as he turned in a brilliant performance with 10 points, four rebounds and was rock solid against John Hardin’s pressure.
And Dominique Harding, who scored 10 points, did a lot of the dirty work. He grabbed offensive rebounds and made his presence felt on the defensive end, blocking three shots and altering many more.
“We trust each other,” Harris said. “That’s the great thing about having seniors. We’ve been playing together for the last three years. We know how each other’s going to play and we play under control. That’s big, especially this time of year.”
Having veterans is irreplaceable. They’ve been through the battles and they don’t flinch in the face of adversity. Each time John Hardin made a run, Elizabethtown had an answer.
Never was that more evident than the fourth quarter when the Panthers made 16-of-19 free throws. That’s what Haire expects from his players, but especially his seniors.
“This meant a lot after the last couple of years,” McDonald said. “That was a long quarter. I looked up and there was still 5 minutes left. But we did a good job of handling it and hitting our free throws down the stretch. We’ve had chances in the past and haven’t gotten here, but we took advantage of our opportunity this year.”
Indeed, they did.
Chuck Jones is the sports editor for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 270 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.