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TAYLORSVILLE - Less than five minutes after twisting, yelling and jumping through the final stages of Anderson County's win at Spencer County last Tuesday, Joretta Russell was asked how her grandson, Jacob Russell, had stayed so calm on the basketball court.
Mrs. Russell, who has seen more games than she can remember and is one of Anderson County's most loyal - and vocal - fans, could only laugh, "He gets it from the Russell side of the family, I guess."
After the sophomore sank two free throws with 6 seconds to play to ice the Bearcats' 47-44 victory, Anderson won't worry too much about the genetic makeup of Russell's game. The Bearcats will just enjoy the results and the top seed in the 30th District Tournament, which Anderson clinched with the victory.
Just 63 seconds before his decisive free throws, Russell dumped a pass to C.J. Penny for a layup that put the Bearcats in front to stay. Then after Spencer's Max Elder saw a potential game winner bounce off the rim, Russell grabbed the rebound before being fouled.
Russell's shots hit nothing but net.
"The main thing is to just stay calm," Russell said of his approach.
"He was the best player on the court tonight, no question," Anderson coach Glen Drury said. "If he stays in the game, we play a lot better."
Russell led all scorers with 15 points and 10 rebounds, including 5 on the offensive end.
But Russell's real value might have been most apparent when he was sitting next to Drury on the Anderson bench. He got his second foul at the 2:23 mark of the first quarter with Spencer holding a slim 10-7 lead. By the time Drury returned Russell and Penny, who also had two early fouls, to the lineup, Spencer had opened an 18-11 cushion midway through the second quarter.
"We panicked," Drury said. "When Spencer got a little lead, we panicked and you can't shoot well if you are panicking."
Anderson's shooting woes had been so great that when the team returned to the court from the halftime break, Drury broke up the customary layup line and instructed his team to shoot from the outside. Anderson finished hitting almost 38 percent from the field, but limited Spencer to 32.4 percent accuracy.
Spencer's surge had confirmed Drury's fear when he learned earlier in the day that Spencer coach Jacob Barmore would be serving an automatic one-game suspension mandated by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association after he had been ejected from a game the previous Friday. Spencer assistant coach Jason Bradshaw ran the team in Barmore's absence.
"I have seen teams rally around a situation like that many times," Drury said. "I thought Spencer County brought their energy at a higher level."
According to the Spencer Magnet, Barmore had received two technical fouls late in a game at Louisville Atherton for protesting a call made by an official away from the play in question.
On the floor, though, Anderson slowly clawed back in the game, tying it at 18, only to see Spencer take a 20-18 halftime lead on Max Elder's 2 free throws.
Anderson went on a 13-3 run that seemed to have the hosts reeling, but Russell was saddled with his third foul midway through the third quarter.
Russell said that Drury's halftime speech was not as much a paint-blistering lecture as it was a reminder that "we had to be more aggressive and assertive."
But with Russell out, Spencer answered to pull within 33-32 heading into the final quarter and took a 42-40 lead with 2:58 to go when Spencer's Max Elder swished a jumper to tie things at 40. Anderson's Ryan Wells was called for a foul while jockeying for rebounding position, sending Spencer's Craig Edwards to the line, where he sank both ends of the bonus situation.
Penny, who finished with 14 points, 10 below his average, hit a free throw to pull Anderson within 42-41. On the ensuing possession, Anderson employed its seldom-used 1-2-1-1 zone press, with Wells swiping a pass at mid-court. He then whipped a pass to Penny but the all-state candidate missed a short jumper.
Russell seemingly came from nowhere for the putback that put the Bearcats back on top.
After Edwards connected again, Russell found Penny alone under the basket, putting Anderson up for good at the 1:09 mark.
But the final 69 seconds weren't without drama.
Spencer worked for a good shot before Elder missed with :07 left. Following Russell's free throws, the Bears settled for Elder's desperation heave that was well off the mark.
"We have always struggled down here for some reason," Drury said. The last time Anderson had visited Spencer, the Bearcats absorbed a 17-point whipping and the two previous trips had seen Anderson win on a last-second shot and claim a 6-point win. "Tonight, you have to give Spencer County a lot of credit. They had a good game plan and they played very hard."
Edwards, a four-year starter, led Spencer with 14 points and 7 rebounds. The winning margin was Anderson's smallest against another regional rival this year.
While Barmore was not at the game, he had been available for practice sessions following the Atherton game. The Bears' 3-2 zone defense kept built a ring around Penny and dared the Bearcats to beat them from the outside. "They did a very good job in the zone," Drury said. "It was basically what they have been doing all year, but you could tell they had been working on this game a long time."
Drury said, "We had been working on it a while, too."