Elliott County has sustained heartbreaking, season-ending losses in the semifinals of the 62nd District Tournament the past two seasons. It was one half from another one Tuesday.
The lone Lion who has significant experience with postseason success helped make sure that wouldn’t happen.
Elliott County senior Logan Nickell led all scorers with 15 points and made winning plays down the stretch in the Lions’ 54-41 defeat of West Carter in Morgan County’s Veterans Memorial Gymnasium.
Nickell ensured Elliott County would keep momentum entering the fourth period by swishing a step-back jumper over two Comets on the final play of the third frame.
He drove the lane for a layup with 1:45 to go to stretch Elliott County’s lead back to double digits after the Lions burned 50 seconds off the clock against West Carter’s zone.
Nickell also cleaned the glass of his own missed free throw with :46.8 seconds left, then hit two charity tosses 3.4 seconds later.
“Logan’s done that his whole career,” Elliott County coach Greg Adkins said. “Some of the best offensive possessions he’s had have been in critical situations ... He’s a special kind of kid. He’s been a real good leader for this team.”
Elliott County saw the importance of those type of plays.
“We knew we had to do that to win,” Nickell said. “West hustles and rebounds hard, so we knew we had to come out and do that with them.”
All that came after the Lions scored just four points in the second quarter and trailed the Comets 22-17 at intermission.
“We just wanted to settle down and play basketball like we have all season,” Adkins said. “Like a lot of teams, most teams, we had some district tournament jitters at the start of the game, and we had a real hard time shaking them.”
A 13-0 run to begin the third quarter helped Elliott County (18-8) do exactly that.
Collin Howell had a double-double with 12 points and 10 boards for the Lions. Landon Griffith added 10 points.
Nickell is the only remaining Lion who played significant minutes for Elliott County’s last team to qualify for the 16th Region Tournament in 2010-2011. The Lions will return to Morehead State next week.
“It means everything,” Nickell said of going back to the region tournament. “Just shows all the hard work we’ve put in all year. We just got to keep playing how we’ve been and hopefully make a run.”
Senior Jacob Layne had 12 points to pace West Carter (10-14) in his final game as a Comet.
West Carter led at halftime both because it won the hustle plays and because Elliott County struggled with foul trouble.
But the Comets scored just seven points in the third quarter. They did not tally until Layne’s 3-pointer with 4:37 to go in the period.
By then, the Lions were up five points. They led 41-29 entering the fourth period after Nickell’s J to end the third.
West Carter finished 12-for-47 from the field, or 25.5 percent. Elliott County went 20-for-50, an even 40 percent.
“The game was there for the taking,” Comets coach Jeremy Webb said. “We had a five-point lead, two-possession lead coming (into) the second half, and we stood on the defensive end, and that carried over to the offensive end. We stood there and didn’t really get things going.
“And to Elliott County’s credit, their defense really kind of made that happen.”
The Comets’ three-season string of region tournament appearances concluded with Tuesday’s loss.
“We feel like we’ve got some talented younger kids that obviously are going be able to help us in the future,” Webb said, “but they’ve got to continue to work and make themselves better also.”
Elliott County advances to Friday’s district tournament final against the winner of tonight’s game between East Carter and tournament host Morgan County.
Just like playing at Ellis T. Johnson Arena will be, taking the floor in the district tournament finals will be a totally new experience for almost all the Lions.
“It’s going to be wild,” Nickell said. “I’m thinking it’ll be kind of like the (All ‘A’ Classic region) finals.”
Added Adkins: “It feels big. The last two years we (were) right there with a very, very young team, just came up a point or two short in each of those (district tournament semifinal) games. It was good to finally get over that hump.”