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Balanced attack boosts Cats past Rockets

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By John Herndon

SHELBYVILLE - Just seconds after C.J. Penny rammed home a thunderous dunk, exclaiming Anderson County's 60-53 win at Shelby County on Friday, his fellow students in the cheering section came up with one of the most creative yells in basketball history.

Turning to the junior's mom, seated a couple of sections away, they chanted, "Thank you, Stephanie! Thank you, Stephanie!"

There was little doubt that Penny's slam put some emphatic punctuation on a victory that has probably thrust the Bearcats into the role of Eighth Region favorite.

"We knew that sealed it," senior guard Ryan Wells said with a big smile.

But the chant wasn't entirely correct. There could have been a thank you for every Bearcat mom on this night. Even though Penny had 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists, it was not just his show.

Far from it.

It was a night when sophomores Will Ruggles and Jacob Russell demonstrated the savvy of seasoned veterans. Chants of "Thank you, Lee. Thank you, Judy" would have been appropriate.

It was a night when Wells, the team's point guard, provided leadership that cannot be measured in the stat lines. He did have a game-high 4 assists and his 3-pointer early in the third quarter gave Anderson the lead for good.

Thank you, Marguerite.

Then there was senior Nathan Grooms - Thank you, Martha - battling the Shelby front line for every rebound and scoring 7 points.

And Seth Goodlett and Nick Humphries provided quality minutes off the bench. Goodlett nailed a big 3-pointer early and gave outstanding defense when the Bearcats needed it. Thank you, Debbie.

All Humphries did was emphasize the fact that he gives the Bearcats a big weapon off the bench with 6 points and a pair of big-time spin moves around Shelby star Coty Minnis. Thank you, Shelia.

Anderson needed every contribution in removing Shelby from the list of Kentucky's unbeaten teams. The Bearcats frustrated the outrageously athletic Rockets with precise ball movement, patience and a hint of the swagger needed to win at one of the state's toughest venues.

"I thought our offensive execution was excellent," Anderson coach Glen Drury said. "The application of what we told the kids was outstanding. We took good shots and didn't rush."

The Bearcats shot better than 55 percent and nailed 62.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. Shelby connected on just 38 percent of all shots and was just 8-for-26 from 3-point land.

And perhaps most telling, the Bearcats proved they could beat a team ranked in the state's top 20 - at least according to the first Litkenhous ratings in The Courier-Journal which had Shelby 15th statewide - with Penny not putting up enormous stats.

The junior went to the bench with two fouls at the start of the second quarter. Owning a four point advantage at the time, Anderson held on to lead 26-25 at halftime. Shelby scored the first basket of the second half but Wells answered with his only field goal of the night and Anderson was never as much as tied over the final 14:48.

"I thought that was the key," Drury said of his team's ability to stay in front even with the region's best player on the bench. "The kids were able to play in a situation they had never been in and they responded very well."

Penny added, "Everyone stepped up. That made it sweet."

Drury continued, "On the bench, (the coaching staff) talked about when to put C.J. back in. We decided to hold him unless Shelby made a run and they are very capable of doing that."

But it never materialized Friday.

"We knew we had to keep playing," Wells said of the second quarter.

At halftime, Penny, who had scored 76 points in three King of the Bluegrass tournament games, had just 2 points. However, Minnis, Shelby's leading scorer, was scoreless. "I thought Jacob Russell's defense on him was outstanding," Drury said.

Minnis, ranked as one of the Eighth Region's five best players, finished with 6 points.

Even with Shelby determined not to let Penny go wild, the Bearcats padded their lead, outscoring Shelby 19-11 in the third quarter. "That's something I was very proud of in C.J. tonight," Drury said. "Shelby had taken some of his scoring away but he did other things to help us win and played through it."

Russell equaled Anderson's biggest advantage at the time with a spin move past Minnis to make it 31-27 at the 6:23 mark. Then, after Minnis scored on a runout, Ruggles sank two free throws and converted a three-point play to put Anderson up by 7 with 4:55 left in the period.

"I felt good about my game," said Ruggles, who scored 14 points. "My shots were going in and I felt comfortable at the line."

Added Drury, "Will Ruggles played an outstanding game. Coming over here, we thought if Will played well, we would win the basketball game."

Anderson extended its lead to 45-36 at the end of the third quarter. The margin reached double digits early in the fourth frame before Shelby made its final push.

The Rockets got within 49-45 midway through the fourth quarter before Drury made the switch to a 2-3 zone, thwarting Shelby's ability to beat a defender on the dribble. Shelby never drew closer.

The victory was the Bearcats' second straight over Shelby on the Rockets' home court. The rare feat sparked another chant from the Anderson student section as the clock ticked off the final seconds: "This is our house! This is our house!"

But the Bearcats themselves were much more subdued. There were smiles, high fives and even a few hugs. However, the celebration beyond that was limited to a chest bump or two. It was as if Anderson understood that the target is now squarely on its back.

"Coach didn't say much," Wells said of Drury's post-game speech. "He just told us to enjoy the win."

But with one qualifier.

"I feel the same as I always have," Drury said. "You have to get good enough (to win a championship). You have to hit your open looks. You have to have your defense hold the other team. You have to take care of the ball."

Anderson did all of those Friday night, but the Bearcats are sure to hear another mantra from their coach reminding of the goal being a Sweet 16 trip.

"This was a big win, but there is still a lot of basketball to be played," Drury said. "I told the kids this is not the one we want."