The 2019-20 season didn’t end exactly as Elizabethtown boys’ basketball had hoped it would.
While the Fifth Region champions were unable to play in the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 Tournament at Rupp Arena as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panthers will get the chance to compete in one of the state’s most prestigious regular-season tournaments this December.
Elizabethtown was invited to participate in the 2020 Chad Gardner Law King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic.
The tournament will be held from Dec. 18-22 at Fairdale High School in Louisville. This will be the 40th edition of the tournament.
“It’s always an honor. It’s a very big tournament,” Elizabethtown Coach James Haire said. “Well run, the competition’s excellent and it’s good for any team to be a part of that.”
Haire said this would be his fourth time playing in the tournament. He and the Panthers last won it in 2005.
This year’s tournament features four region champions from last season. These are Elizabethtown from the Fifth Region, Seventh Region winners Male, Ninth region champions Covington Catholic and Martin County from the 15th Region.
Additional Kentucky teams competing in this year’s event are Ballard, Beechwood, Bowling Green, Eastern, Fairdale, Marshall County, North Laurel, Oldham County, Spencer County and Trinity.
The two out-of-state teams will be Dorman High School from Roebuck, South Carolina and Brentwood Academy from Brentwood, Tennessee.
Dorman has won four straight Class 5A state titles in South Carolina, while Brentwood brings a top national prospect for the class of 2022 in 6-foot-2 guard Skyy Clark to the table. Clark is considered a top recruiting target for the University of Kentucky.
Haire said bringing in high-quality competition from across Kentucky and elsewhere is what makes the King of the Bluegrass stand out as a tournament.
“They have a lot of good teams in-state and they bring teams from out of state too,” Haire said. “So it’s more like a national-type tournament.”
This year’s Elizabethtown team brings back many quality players from last year’s team that 27-3 overall and 17-2 in region play. Among these players are rising seniors Jaquais Franklin and Camden Williams, who led the team last year with 21.5 points per game and 13 points per game, respectively.
After a disappointing end to last season, Williams said he and his teammates were looking forward to the opportunity to compete against so many high-quality opponents.
“It’s an honor. Only the best teams in Kentucky get to go there and the best teams out of Kentucky, so it’s gonna be a really good experience for us,” Williams said. “I know all of my teammates were excited. We’ve already been talking about it. We can’t wait to go up there and play and show out. It should be a fun time for us.”
With this year’s team returning much of the talent that carried it to the region championship, Haire explained that the invitation would be another way to showcase what this team is capable of. He added it would also prepare the Panthers for competition against high-level teams.
“Last year’s ending of the season didn’t end well for obvious reasons. I really feel bad for the seniors who don’t get the chance to finish their season. And this year, everything’s different. Even though we return a lot of players, but it’s still different,” Haire said. “We hope this will help us to grow as a team, to be in any type of competition, to feel like you earned something, so hopefully we learn something from this tournament.”
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Elizabethtown from getting the chance to play at the state tournament last season, along with many other teams from across the sate. It was disappointing end for a team that had not reached this point since the 2004-05 season.
While it wasn’t quite the same, Williams said getting the chance to compete in the King of the Bluegrass was an added bonus for the Panthers’ returning players this season. It wasn’t Lexington, but he explained it could help take off the sting of not getting that chance last season.
“We didn’t get the shot at Rupp Arena last year, so this is kind of like our way to make up for it, in a way. These are like the same teams that would have been up in the state tournament,” Williams said. “Really good competition and we’re just fortunate to be able to go up there.”