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Trying to find a leader with junior guard Nic McDonald out at least another week because of a toe injury, longtime Elizabethtown coach James Haire changed up his pre-game routine Monday night.
Instead of giving his team a rah-rah speech before the Panthers hosted 17th District rival Fort Knox, Haire opted not to say anything to them – hoping one of his players would.
But the Panthers came out flat and Fort Knox found holes in their man-to-man defense in the first quarter and stayed with Elizabethtown over the first 9 minutes.
The Panthers, however, found a spark in the second quarter – outscoring the Eagles by 16 and forcing six turnovers – and eventually pulled away for an 86-50 win at Charlie Rawlings Memorial Gym.
“The first quarter might be my fault,” Haire said. “I’m trying to prove a point that there has to be some level of enthusiasm before you go out for a game. I didn’t say a word to them before the game. No pre-game speech, no nothing. I’m waiting for one of them to stand up and do something.
“That might not be all of it. Fort Knox played well the first quarter,” he added. “But somebody’s got to bring the intensity. It can’t be me all the time. It’s got to be one of them, and we didn’t do that the first quarter.”
Elizabethtown (8-3, 1-2 district) switched to a 1-3-1 zone in the second quarter, which seemed to make the Eagles uncomfortable. They went 3-of-13 from the field in the period as the Panthers took control.
“The big change was E’town changed defenses and we didn’t adjust very well to it in the second quarter. That’s the bottom line,” veteran Fort Knox coach Kip Rambo said. “We shot a bunch of shots that were ill-advised and because of it, we were one-and-done almost the entire second quarter instead of being able to get some second looks and creating better opportunities for ourselves.”
Junior forward Ja’Von Cotton, who scored 17 of his game-high 29 points in the first half, felt his team should have been in control from the start.
“It was just a lack of intensity,” he said. “I think we picked it up as the game went along, but we’ve got to start out games way better. We’ve got to be ready to play. It happened against Central (Hardin), too. We gave more effort on the defensive end, and we put up some points (in the second quarter). But we’ve got to give way more effort on defense.”
After Fort Knox (2-9, 0-4) tied it at 20 on a jumper in the lane by junior guard Chris Jackson, Elizabethtown answered with a 16-2 run. The Panthers stretched their lead to 44-28 at the half.
Elizabethtown came out of the break with more intensity, opening the third quarter with an 8-0 run. Cotton and sophomore forward Zach Patterson each hit 3-pointers sandwiched around a putback by sophomore forward Zane Najdawi.
The Panthers were just getting started. Fort Knox senior forward Rashaan Allen scored on a putback to cut the lead to 58-34, but Elizabethtown put the game out of reach with a 22-10 run spanning the final 3:44 of the third quarter and the first 5 minutes of the fourth.
Rambo said the zone defense was too much for the Eagles to overcome.
“We just spent some time practicing against that defense,” he said. “It’s not a huge adjustment for us. We started making the adjustment early in the third quarter, but we were just missing some really good shots. We weren’t putting it in the hole, but we were getting some really good looks.”
While Rambo and the Eagles want to improve against a zone defense, Haire and the Panthers will keep searching for a team leader while McDonald is sidelined.
McDonald has missed four games and Haire doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return to the court.
“I need someone to step up as a leader,” Haire said. “I don’t know what’s got to happen. We’ve been looking for it. They are a great group of guys; I just don’t know if it’s in any of their personalities to be outspoken. I always have one. Somebody’s got to step out of their comfort zone and do that for us.
“We’re looking for multiple people to step up,” he added. “I don’t know when Nic will be back and I don’t know how long it will take, when he does come back, to get into the flow. He’s been out for four games. If I had to point my finger at a leader, it would point toward him.”
Two candidates emerged Monday night in Cotton and Najdawi, who had 23 points and nine rebounds. Junior forward Dominique Harding added 10 points and five rebounds, while senior forward Chas Jones scored nine off the bench.
Allen had a double-double (19 points, 10 rebounds) for Fort Knox, while junior guard Michael Armstead scored 13.
UP NEXT: Elizabethtown hosts North Hardin at 7:30 tonight. Fort Knox plays at Thomas Nelson at 7:30 tonight.
Josh Claywell can be reached at (270) 505-1752 or firstname.lastname@example.org.