By Les Dixon
BARBOURVILLE — Just a week ago it seemed as if the Knox Central Panthers might be a one and done team going into the 51st District Tournament.
What a difference a week makes.
Brian Evans’ squad will now enter next week’s 13th Region Tournament as one of the favorites after upending Barbourville during Thursday’s 51st District championship game, 60-45.
“I’m just really proud of our guys,” Knox Central coach Brian Evans said. “They have battled and hung in there even with the stretch of injuries we’ve had.
“I’m happy for our two seniors, too,” he added. “I really liked the way we played tonight.
For the second straight game, Knox Central (19-11) led from the tip-off and never looked back, as the Panthers captured their sixth straight 51st District while snapping the Tigers’ (19-11) seven-game win streak in the process.
Knox Central led by as much as 11 points (48-37 with 7:04 remaining in the fourth quarter) before seeing Barbourville go on a 6-0 run to cut its deficit to 48-43 with 3:21 left in the game.
But three consecutive turnovers by the Tigers led to three straight assists by Knox Central’s Matt Barger, the third one, a no-look pass to Chad Marsee, sealed the deal for the Panthers and gave them a commanding 54-43 edge with 1:41 remaining.
“That was huge,” Evans said. “It seemed like every time we got a big lead, they would cut it down, but that was an important stretch of the game.
“We were able to come up with some steals and made baskets that allowed us to build our lead back up,” he added. “That was a key point of the game.”
Barbourville coach Dinky Phipps said his teams’ miscues late in the game was one of many reasons why his team lost.
“That was a big point in the ball game,” he admitted. “I thought we came out nervous tonight and I also thought we passed the ball too much at times and it led to turnovers.
“We got careless with the ball during that stretch and they made us pay for our mistakes,” Phipps added. “Barger came up with some good passes and they were able to make their shots. I’m disappointed because I thought we could have come out and played better, but we didn’t.”
Evans received another balanced effort, as three players scored in double figures during the win with Jeffrey Adams leading the way with 17 points while Dustin Hensley scored 12 points and Barger added 10.
“It’s great to get the balanced scoring,” Evans said. “It’s making us harder to defend.”
For the second consecutive game, the Panthers hurt their opponents with impressive shooting efforts from the floor. Knox Central managed to knock down 10-of-20 shot attempts in the first half to build a 28-24 lead at halftime.
A three-pointer by Adams to begin the third quarter combined along with a couple of baskets by Barger allowed the Panthers to go on a 14-7 run and take a 45-35 edge into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers, who were without starter Alexander Phipps, tried to battle back, but 11 turnovers and a 16-of-52 shooting effort led to their loss. Despite seeing his team lose for the first time since Jan. 28, Phipps believes his team can make some noise next week in the 13th Region Tournament.
“I believe we have a good team and we’ve got a shot to do some things if we don’t go down there and stink up the gym,” he said.
As for Evans’ squad, they might be peaking at the right time.
“I think that’s a possibility,” Evans said. “Coming down the stretch we have been playing well. I know the past two games we have really shot the ball well.”
Knox Central finished shooting better than 50 percent from the floor (22-of-43) for the second straight game and only turned the ball over 10 times.
51st District Tournament
at Barbourville High School
Knox Central 60, Barbourville 45
Knox Central 14 14 17 15 60
Barbourville 11 13 11 10 45
Knox Central (60) — Adams 17, Barger 10, Hensley 12, Marsee 8, Wilburn 7, Merida 8.
Barbourville (45) — D. Mills 16, Strong 7, J. Mills 16, Moore 3, Eldridge 3.