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The mission is far from accomplished, but the first leg was mighty good for Anderson County.
The Bearcats captured their second 30th District championship in three years Friday night, building a double-digit lead, then holding off Shelby County with clutch free throwing for a 55-49 victory.
A standing room only crowd estimated at 2,300 people squeeze in to the Anderson County High School gym to watch a pair of battle-tested and fierce rivals go at it for the second time this year. Anderson won the first one, 46-42, on Jan. 3.
Round two did not disappoint.
It was a night when the stars shined a bit brighter as all-stater C.J. Penny led all scorers with 23 points and rugged Jacob Russell added 12 points and 15 rebounds. But for Anderson, at least, it was a night of major contributions from different sources as the Bearcats improved to 21-5.
Senior Landon Jenkins scored 14 points while junior guard Allen Warford helped contain Shelby guards Norris Beckley, Jr. and Cache Tomlinson to a combined 18 points. Will Ruggles canned a pair of clutch free throws, less than eight minutes after a collision had left a nasty cut over his left eye and reserves Walt Ruggles, Nick Humphries and Jeremy Turpin gave quality minutes.
Penny, Russell, Jenkins and Will Ruggles were named all-tournament.
“Our program has been very fortunate to win the district two out of the last three years. Give our kids a lot of credit for stepping up and making the plays,” Anderson coach Glen Drury said. “Give Shelby County a lot of credit, too. They have improved tremendously and are playing very well right now.”
Anderson knew that its previous win over an incredibly athletic team meant nothing Friday.
“(Drury) didn’t say I had to step up,” Jenkins said. “He said the whole team had to play better.”
Jenkins sparked the Bearcats with an early 3-pointer and converted Penny’s steal into a bucket that gave Anderson the lead for good with 2:00 remaining in the first half.
While Anderson trailed for less than 90 seconds, the Cats could never quite shake the Rockets, who had been riding a seven-game winning streak.
Penny produced as a big-time prospect should, using spin moves, bank shots and combinations of the two to riddle the Rockets inside. But it was his seven steals and four assists that seemed to frustrate Shelby.
“Our defense was good but not great,” Drury said.
Russell became a warrior, claiming every free ball near him and then some. A big-time quarterback prospect who has earned the reputation as the football Bearcats’ toughest hitter, Russell seemed to relish the jostling under the basket. “It’s always rough under there when we play Shelby,” he said.
The junior swished one of the night’s biggest shots, a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the third quarter. It gave Anderson a 43-32 lead, the Bearcats’ largest to that time.
“C.J. got the rebound and just got the ball to me,” Russell said. The shot did not seem to affect him but it sent the overflowing crowd into a frenzy.
But things were not totally rosy. Ruggles had collided with Shelby’s Donovan Johnson and on the way to the floor, his head met Johnson’s knee, opening a deep cut over Ruggles’ left eye. After the game was stopped for about five minutes to clean the blood off the floor, Ruggles went to the locker room for treatment.
The lead expanded to 46-34 when Penny took Russell’s pass for a layup with 6:00 to play, but after Shelby scored to get it back to 10, Anderson got away from its game plan. The Bearcats missed on an ill-advised 3-pointer, then missed a free throw and made uncharacteristic turnovers.
“There was no reason for that shot,” said Drury, who was obviously perturbed by his team suddenly getting away from what had been good.
When Shelby’s Boomer Beckley, who is listed at 5-foot-9, somehow got a putback, the Rockets had pulled within 48-47 with 91 seconds to play.
But Anderson never folded.
When the Bearcats turned it over again, Penny took matters into his own hands, coming up with a steal near midcourt. Fouled on the play, Penny, shooting around 57 percent on the year, swished both shots with 29.2 seconds to play.
Beckley drew the Rockets within one again, but Ruggles, sporting a bandage over his left eye, calmly sank both ends of the double bonus to make it 52-49.
Shelby had a chance to tie, but eighth-grader Darryl Hicks’ 3-pointer bounced off the rim.
Penny sank one of two shots to seal the win before Jenkins scored on a runout for the exlcamation point.
“We knew they would make a run,” Penny said. “We had to make the big play. They are good.”
But Shelby’s late punch was nothing new for the Bearcats. The Bearcats had played three teams in the state’s top five and three others ranked in the top 25 at the time the games were played. “The tough competition helped us,” Ruggles said.
The Bearcats know they have the opportunity for the much bigger show for the Sweet 16 at Rupp Arena. That is a matter of winning three games at the Eighth Region tournament.
The Sweet 16, not a district title, has been the goal ever since the Bearcats went out in the regional first round last year. Said Russell, “We have three more to go.”
E-mail John Herndon at email@example.com.