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His team’s double-digit lead was almost gone, but Ja’Von Cotton remained cool under pressure Friday night.
The Fort Knox Eagles sliced Elizabethtown’s 13-point lead to four going to the fourth quarter after sophomore guard Tarik James hit a 3-pointer, but Cotton and the visiting Panthers didn’t panic.
Cotton and fellow junior guard Nic McDonald combined for three 3s in the first 2:20 of the fourth quarter to help Elizabethtown pull away for a 57-41 win over its 17th District rival.
“I wasn’t nervous because I always have confidence in my teammates,” Cotton said. “I knew someone would come up and make a big shot. And I’ve always got confidence in myself. I always want the ball and I hit two big 3s, and that was big.”
Was it ever.
McDonald and Cotton’s shots sparked their team on a game-changing 14-3 run to push the lead to 51-36 with 4:33 left to play. The surge began as senior forward Chas Jones, who had nine points, seven rebounds, one assist and one block, scored on a putback. Cotton followed with a jumper and junior forward Dominique Harding converted a three-point to play to cap the scoring burst.
“I was just thinking we needed to get back and play hard,” Harding said. “We got that timeout (at the end of the quarter) and we got refocused. Then Ja’Von came out and hit a 3 and we just started driving to the bucket and everyone started clicking again. We were able to pull away.”
Veteran coach James Haire said the Panthers should never have been in that position – especially after beating the Eagles by 36 points in the first meeting.
But Elizabethtown struggled early, going 8-of-21 from the field and only leading 21-11 at the half.
“In the first half, we did a good job defensively and held them to 11 points but we only had 21. That was frustrating because we weren’t shooting the ball in sync. We just took too many unnecessary shots,” Haire said. “I give credit to Fort Knox. We just didn’t do the things we needed to do and they were.”
The Panthers (12-8, 4-4 district) took command in the second half, taking a 30-19 lead to 5:02 remaining in the third. A layup by Harding made it 32-22, but the Eagles got a lift from junior guard Michael Armstead – who scored six of his team’s next eight points to slice the lead to 33-30 with 1:16 left. Armstead finished with 15 points and five rebounds.
“Basketball is a series of runs, and they were on a run and feeling good,” Haire said. “They were getting the ball to the right people and they were knocking down 3s. Those guys have been capable of knocking down those shots all year long.”
Cotton scored the next four points, but James’ 3 near the end of the period pulled Fort Knox (6-14, 0-8) within 37-33 going to the fourth.
Just as the Panthers were warming up in the final period, the Eagles went cold. They missed their first five shots of the quarter as Elizabethtown opened up a 48-34 lead 4:57 remaining.
“I don’t know if that was us or just them not hitting their shots,” Haire said. “I thought we didn’t close out well when they hit them earlier in the game. I don’t know if their legs got tired or what.
“We just had to execute,” he added. “We had to stop gambling on defense, and fortunately they turned the ball over and we were able to make a few shots. We got ourselves a pretty big lead after that. I think we settled down a little bit and we got a few stops.”
The game had no bearing on seeding for the district tournament, but Harding – who had 16 points and six rebounds – said the Panthers needed this win.
“We definitely didn’t need to lose this one, so to get the win should help us,” he said. “It won’t change our position (in the district) but we couldn’t really afford to lose this one.”
Junior guard Chris Jackson had nine points and two rebounds for the Eagles.
UP NEXT: Elizabethtown, which played LaRue County on Saturday, plays at John Hardin at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Fort Knox plays at Hart County at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.