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Veteran Elizabethtown coach James Haire has been on his Panthers to play with more fire, aggression and passion.
Junior guard Nic McDonald admits all of that is a work in progress, but also said his team took a big step late in their game Saturday night in Hodgenville.
McDonald scored 11 of his team-high 18 points in the final 7:14, sophomore center Zane Najdawi scored eight points in the last 4 minutes and senior forward Chas Jones had two steals in the final 2 minutes as the Panthers earned a wild 55-51 win over star senior guard Kelton Ford and the LaRue County Hawks.
“We showed some aggressiveness there late, but we all have to show it throughout the game,” said McDonald, who also had four rebounds and three assists. “If we don’t, we’re one-and-done at tournament time. So we all have to play with that type of passion.”
The Panthers (13-8) needed that fire to overcome Ford and the Hawks (14-7), who appeared poised to end their 12-year losing streak to Elizabethtown. Ford had game highs in points (21), assists (seven) and steals (five).
“You have to know where he’s at all times,” said Najdawi, who had 17 points – two of which came on a thunderous dunk off a baseline drive late in the first half – and a game-high 12 rebounds. “He can score and drive around anybody.”
Ford’s scoring allowed the Hawks to take the lead nine times in a game that featured 19 lead changes and seven ties. LaRue County’s largest deficit was 5-0, while the Panthers overcame four four-point holes at 23-19 and 25-21 in the third quarter and 43-39 and 48-44 in the fourth quarter.
Ford was indirectly involved in the Hawks’ last two leads as senior guard Dustin Coulter putback a Ford drive with less than 3 minutes left to put the Hawks up 48-44 and junior forward Kody Key-Close putback a Ford 3 and made the free throw after getting fouled to put the Hawks up 51-50 with 48.5 seconds left.
“Down the stretch, it was just about making plays and who was going to step up and make them,” Ford said. “They made a few more plays than we did.”
Despite missing 17-of-21 shots to start the game, the Panthers had no problems converting late. After falling behind 48-44, Elizabethtown converted on each of its final six possessions with McDonald making two free throws, Najdawi making three baskets and a free throw and Jones coming up with a steal and layup with 12.5 seconds left to give his team a 54-51 lead.
Contested by junior guard Ja’Von Cotton, who finished with 11 points, five rebounds and four assists, Ford missed what would have been a tying 3-pointer with less than 4 seconds left. Najdawi grabbed the rebound and was fouled, hitting 1-of-2 free throws with 2.1 seconds left to give the Panthers a critical two-possession lead.
Haire said it was a good win for his team considering neither team really got in a comfort zone.
“It was a struggle the entire game for us,” said Haire, whose team finally won consecutive games again for the first time since Jan. 7-8 after winning at Fort Knox on Friday. “We could never really get in a groove and LaRue County had a lot to do with that.”
Part of Elizabethtown’s problem was its fouls. Every starter but one got a foul in the first 7 minutes and two picked up two fouls each in the first 5 minutes.
“We’ve got to be smarter,” said Najdawi, whose team is 16-1 against the Hawks since 1998. “We can’t have certain people out of the game for a long time.”
ELIZABETHTOWN 55, LARUE COUNTY 51
Elizabethtown 9 7 15 24—55
LaRue County 7 9 16 19—51
Nic McDonald 18, Zane Najdawi 17, Ja’Von Cotton 11, Zach Patterson 5, Dominique Harding 2, Chas Jones 2. FG: 20-58. FT: 7-10. 3-pointers: 8-27 (Cotton 3-15, McDonald 4-6, Patterson 1-3, Ryan Harris 0-5). Rebs: 33 (Najdawi 12, Jones 6). Assists: 11 (Cotton 4, McDonald 3). Steals: 9 (Jones 3, Cotton 2).
LaRue County (14-7)
Kelton Ford 21, Tyler Howell 10, Kody Key-Close 6, Caleb Sheffer 5, Micah Wiseman 5, Dustin Coulter 2, Thomas Harman 2. FG: 20-41. FT: 5-8. 3-pointers: 6-17 (Ford 4-10, Wiseman 1-3, Key-Close 1-2, Coulter 0-1, Howell 0-1). Rebs: 21 (Coulter 6). Assists: 14 (Ford 7, Coulter 5). Steals: 7 (Ford 5).
UP NEXT: Elizabethtown plays at John Hardin at 7:30 p.m. Monday. LaRue County plays at Nelson County at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Nathaniel Bryancan be reached at (270) 505-1758 or email@example.com.