In March 12 IssueBy Derek AaronTimes Journal Sports Editor
The Russell County Lakers (23-7) came up short in the 4th region semifinals on Monday night, falling to the 24-8 Franklin-Simpson Wildcats 60-54 at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green. The loss ended the Lakers season and dashed the region title hopes of fans across the county.
The Lakers, who shocked region favorite Warren Central on Saturday, had hoped to represent the region in the upcoming Sweet Sixteen state championship tournament in Lexington for the first time in more than five decades
Coach Willie Feldhaus' team shot just 39 percent from the floor for the game and hit just six of 21 shots in the second half. Russell County was led in scoring by senior Bryon Ellis, the region player of the year, with 17 points in his last game as a Laker. Junior Robbie Bell was the other Laker in double figures with 13 points.
"I think the game was a lot more physical in the second half," Feldhaus, the 4th region coach of the year, said after the game. "We didn't do a real good job at times of passing out of some of the double teams and two nights ago we were able to pass out and create some easy buckets inside and we got absolutely no easy buckets the second half tonight. Take nothing away from Franklin-Simpson, they did a great job with their defense."
With the Russell County faithful in full force at Diddle, the Lakers came out strong against the Wildcats and even held a double digit lead for much of the first half.
The Lakers shot 48 percent from the field in the game's first half and went into halftime with a 32-22 lead.
But tough Wildcat defense hindered the Laker offense in the game's last 16 minutes and Russell County went down fighting, losing by six points.
Feldhaus said that down the stretch his players were unable to get off many good looks and that all shots were contested by the Wildcats.
"I think at halftime we had outrebounded them by eight and for the game they ended up outrebounding us by one," he said. "It just became a much more physical game and they're a little stronger and a little bigger than we are at a lot of positions."
The Laker coach said he was disappointed that his team failed to attack the basket enough in the second half to put them on the free throw line more than seven times. The Lakers have had much success this season from the line and were 14-17 Monday night with most of those coming in the first half.
"The kids were very disappointed, obviously," Feldhaus said. "They can see that we've made enough progress in the program the past four years that they're not just happy to get to the region, they actually saw that they had an opportunity to win the thing this year, especially after beating Warren Central."
Aside from Ellis and Bell, five other Lakers scored. Lucas Justice, Adam Justice and Zach Carney, all juniors, scored seven apiece while Tyler Robertson, an 8th grader, scored two points. Junior point guard Bryson McFall had just one point after scoring 17 two nights earlier against Warren Central. Junior Kyle Burchett played but did not score.
Lucas Justice led the Lakers in rebounding with 11. The Wildcats, who shot 51 percent for the game, were led in scoring by Terry Bryant with 25 points on 8-16 shooting.
The game ended up being a somber send-off for the two Laker seniors, 1,000+ point scorer Bryon Ellis and Bryce Bailey, who's signed to football at Cambellsville University in the fall.
"What can you say about those two," Feldhaus said. "They are the poster child for high school athletics. They work hard every day, they get it right off the court and they've been a joy to be around for the last four years and it will be hard to imagine playing without them in the future."
While the loss means this season is now over, the Lakers will return a number of key components from this year's team next season. Seniors-to-be Robbie Bell, Bryson McFall, Adam Justice, Lucas Justice, Zach Carney, Kyle Burchett and Jordan Best all return along with a healthy group of juniors-to-be, sophomores-to-be and freshmen-to-be.
"We're going to be good next year if a lot of us improve," Feldhaus said. He said that just because his team returns four starters and their sixth man doesn't mean guaranteed success.
"We have lost a lot in just the two seniors that we have," he said. "Everybody that we have needs to work on their games to get back to where we are now."