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NEW CASTLE – There was never any doubt in C.J. Penny's mind.
“I was going to take the shot and I was going to hit it,” Penny said after hitting a 3-pointer as time expired to send Anderson County past Shelby County, 52-49, for the Eighth Region championship Tuesday night.
Anderson advances to the Sweet 16 for just the fourth time in school history and the first time since 1997.
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Penny's shot will live forever in the annals of Anderson County basketball history. He released his game-winner from near 30 feet out just before the final horn. The shot hit nothing but net and set off a wild celebration among the huge Anderson contingent that descended on Winchester Gym at Henry County High School.
“I got very little sleep last night,” Anderson coach Glen Drury said Wednesday morning. “It is always emotional when we play Shelby County anyway. It was a great high school basketball game. This was one of those happy no-sleep nights.”
Things had looked bleak with score tied at 49 and Shelby County's Norris Beckley, Jr., a 79 percent free throw shooter, at the foul line with 4.2 seconds to play.
Anderson coach Glen Drury called time to plot strategy. The extra time might have also iced Beckley, who, like his teammates, had struggled at the line Tuesday night. Shelby hit just 8-of-19 free throws.
“He told me to get the rebound and take it to the hole,” Penny said.
Beckley was short with the front end of the bonus. Jacob Russell grabbed the rebound and fired a pass to Penny who raced down the left side for his game-winner.
Penny and Russell led Anderson with 18 points each.
“I told the kids we were bringing it no matter what,” Drury said of his decision to forego another timeout. “I told C.J. to take the ball as far as he could, then shoot it. I thought he would hit the shot or get fouled.
“C.J. is that way. He's always that way. He's the type of kid that will find a way to win.”
That Penny sent the Bearcats to the Sweet 16 with a 3-pointer was ironic. Hitting about 30 percent from beyond the arc all season, Penny's bomb was just his 11th of the year.
“I knew it was going in when it left my hand,” Penny said.
The crowd, estimated at 5,000 fans, held its breath. The red light behind the goal, which indicates that time has expired, went off just as the ball reached the apex of its flight.
When the ball ripped the twine, the Anderson crowd, perhaps 3,000 strong, mobbed Penny and his teammates in a celebration unlike any seen in 12 years.
Anderson erased a four-point deficit after Shelby built a 49-45 lead on Cache Tomlinson's 3-pointer with 1:50 to play.
“I told the kids we still had time,” Drury said. “I never did have that sick feeling in my stomach. This club has always found a way to win.”
Russell said there was no panic or worry. “No. We had worked too hard,” he said.
Russell sank two free throws, then coming out of a Shelby timout, Penny took the ball from Nigel Beach, then was fouled as he gained control.
“That play was huge,” Drury said. “We needed a big defensive play right then and C.J. came up with it.”
Not yet in the bonus, Anderson put the ball in play near the Shelby bench. The ball went to Russell. who powered to the basket to tie things with 1:12 remaining. Fouled on the shot, Russell had a chance to put the Bearcats ahead but missed the free throw. Russell also scored 18 points.
“I got bumped pretty good on that one,” Russell grinned.
Shelby ran clock, then spread the floor for the ultra-quick Beckley to work his magic. As Beckley maneuvered for a possible decisive shot. Allen Warford was called for his fifth foul with 4.2 seconds showing on the clock.
“Allen had had such a tough defensive assignment,” Drury said. “I had to take him out at times, because he was physically exhausted.”
Somehow, fate finally smiled on Anderson when Beckley's shot trickled off the rim and Penny's was straight and true.
“We have had a lot of near-misses,” said Drury, who is in his 22nd year coaching the Bearcats and is closing in on 400 career wins. “Our kids were very hungry.”
Anderson got a huge game from Landon Jenkins, who hit four 3-pointers and finished with 12 points. His outstanding play prompted Drury to not go to his bench as much as he normally does. “Landon was playing so well and doing everything so well. He shot well, was making passes, playing defense. He forced Tomlinson to work for everything he got. We had such a small margin for error that I left him in.”
The Bearcats had threatened to put some distance between themselves and their biggest rival in the first half and blow things open in the second. Anderson opened an 18-13 lead in the second quarter and pushed it to seven at two different junctures in the third.
Tied at 26 at the half, Anderson put together a 9-2 outburst to open the third quarter.
But Shelby, trying to repeat as regional champs, refused to go away, while Anderson suddenly got away from what had put the Bearcats in control. The Bearcats went through a stretch of turnovers and bad shots while the athletic Rockets began controlling the backboards and making the Bearcats pay for mistakes.
“We didn't stay in our offense well enough,” Drury explained, but I want to give Shelby the credit for their defense. They made us do some things we don't like to do.”
Junior Donovan Johnson led Shelby with 16 points, while Beckley scored 11.
Shelby ran off nine straight points to go up 42-39 with five minutes left. Still trailing 45-43, Anderson tied things when 6-foot-7 Nick Humphries bulled his way for a basket with 2:41 left. “That was a huge basket,” Drury said.
But after Tomlinson put his team up four, it appeared that Shelby had more than erased the sting of two previous losses to the Bearcats in the biggest night of the year.
“I am telling you, (winning the region) is a monumental task,” Drury said. “It comes down to executing both offensively and defensively against teams that know you like the back of their hand.”
In the end, it was a mixture of savvy basketball players and some luck that will send the Bearcats to the ultimate high school basketball tournament of them all.
The Bearcats move on to play Elliott County, a team that beat Anderson in overtime on Jan. 10, in the first round of the Sweet 16 on Thursday, March 19 at 8 p.m. in Rupp Arena. Ticket information will be posted at www.theandersonnews.com as soon as it becomes available from the high school.
“It really didn't hit me until this morning,” Russell said Wednesday. “I can't really explain how it feels.”
He really did not need to.
The Bearcats are one of 16 survivors heading to the state tournament. Anyone in Kentucky knows what it is.
E-mail John Herndon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eighth Region Championship game
At Henry County High School
SHELBY CO. 13 13 9 14 – 49
ANDERSON CO. 16 10 13 13 – 52
SC – Johnson 16, Beckley 11, Tomlinson 10, Standafer 5, Beach 5, Payton 2. AC – Penny 18, Russell 18, Jenkins 12, Warford 2, Humphries 2.