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The Central Hardin Bruins had been in this position three times already this season as visiting 17th District rival John Hardin built a double-digit lead in the early going Tuesday night at Bruin Gym.
Much like in their first three games, the Bruins figured they had plenty of time to pull off another come-from-behind victory.
John Hardin senior guard Malcolm Foster would have none of it. Foster hit six 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 36 points to lead the Bulldogs to an 82-66 win. It was Central Hardin’s third straight loss after a 3-0 start.
“We knew before Christmas that might happen. Fortunately we were able to win our first three,” Central Hardin coach J.C. Wright said. “We’ve ran into a stretch where we’re playing some quick athletic teams, and we’ve got to be able to adjust to their pressure. We face another team (tonight) in Bardstown that’s much like John Hardin – they’ll bring a lot of pressure to us. If we play like we did in the second half, I like our chances. But if we come out a little timid, then we’re going to struggle early on.”
Just like Thursday night, when Foster hit 3s on consecutive possessions to stake John Hardin to an 8-0 lead in the first 74 seconds.
Central Hardin didn’t get on the board until senior guard Matt Nichols, who went 13-of-15 from the foul line and scored a team-high 27 points, hit two free throws with 5:49 left in the first quarter. That was as close as the Bruins (0-2 district) would get.
“It’s a big district win. It’s really, really big,” said Foster, who also had five rebounds, one assist and one steal. “We’ve just got to keep playing hard. It starts in practice. You’ve got to practice hard and roll it over to the game.”
The Bulldogs (4-0 overall, 2-0 district) are playing surprisingly well for a team that just got most of its starters back from the football team. John Hardin has won three times by 21 or more points and led wire-to-wire against 5th Region rival Bardstown in a 69-67 win Friday night.
Even though his team led 43-25 at the half Tuesday, John Hardin coach Mark Wells knew what the Bruins were capable of after picking up come-from-behind wins over region rival Nelson County, Henderson County and Grayson County.
“I know what they’ve done the last couple of games, especially against a good Henderson County team,” Wells said. “We knew they capable of coming back, and we talked about that at halftime.”
Spurred by Nichols and senior forward Austin Barnett, Central Hardin put together a furious third-quarter rally.
Nichols and Barnett, who had a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), combined to score 12 of the Bruins’ 21 points in the period, pulling Central Hardin to within 55-46 going to the fourth quarter.
“Matt stepped up big for us, and Austin had one of his better games since he’s been here,” Wright said. “We had some kids step up, and when you make some shots that obviously helps as well.
“I was proud of them in the second half. We came out and fought hard,” he added. “Then we made a couple of bad turnovers. When we have that type of run, we’ve got to keep pressing. We did a better job attacking the basket in the second half.”
The Bruins turned the ball over twice in the first 90 seconds of the fourth quarter, and the Bulldogs began pulling away again.
After Barnett hit a short jumper with 5:14 left, John Hardin junior forward Patrick Crowe hit a layup and Foster drilled his sixth 3 to extend the lead to 68-53 with less than 4 minutes left.
“Malcolm shot the ball well, but we know he can do that,” Wells said. “We did a good job recognizing him being open, and we executed a lot better. I was glad to see that. We were able to create shots for him, and there were a few that he created on his own. There’s no doubt he has that ability. He’s a talented basketball player.”
Foster felt he was in for a solid night during pre-game warm-ups, and said his teammates recognized early on that he had the hot hand.
“My team was hitting me when I was open,” said Foster, who also had five rebounds, one assist and one steal. “We do a good job of finding people when they’re hot. Once we get rolling, it’s hard to stop us. I was feeling great tonight. Central Hardin didn’t put a hand up (in my face) so I had to shoot it.”
John Hardin hit four free throws and Foster scored the Bulldogs’ final six points in the final 2:17 to seal the win.
The Bulldogs joined district rival North Hardin as the only teams to score 80-plus points in a regular-season game at Central Hardin, and are off to their best start since they won their first seven games in 2005-06.
“The last couple of seasons we’ve started out slow off the bat,” Wells said. “Central Hardin did a nice job coming out of the locker room and punched us in the mouth. Our kids came out focused and got off to a good start. Luckily Malcolm knocked down a couple of shots early and that got our energy rolling.”
UP NEXT: John Hardin hosts 17th District rival North Hardin at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Central Hardin hosts 5th Region rival Bardstown at 7:30 tonight.
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or at firstname.lastname@example.org