In Feb. 25 IssueBy Derek AaronTimes Journal Sports Editor
In a game where Russell County fans experienced all sorts of emotions, the #1 seed Lakers defeated the #4 seed Cumberland County Panthers, 66-46, in the opening round of 16th district tournament action Monday night.
The win sends the 20-3 Lakers to the district title game for the fifth consecutive season to face off with the Clinton County Bulldogs who defeated Metcalfe County Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Friday at Clinton County High School in Albany.
Senior-laden Russell County came out firing against the Panthers and roared out to a 16-8 lead at the end of the first quarter.
"I told our kids before the game that I wanted them to play loose and if they had shots, jump up and knock the things down and we did that," Laker coach Willie Feldhaus said following the Laker victory.
"But, when you make the three-pointers early you get less physical inside and then we finally missed a couple threes."
Coach Brandon Combs' Panthers, behind solid senior leadership themselves, battled back in the second quarter to cut the halftime lead to just two points at 26-24.
Feldhaus said he even noticed one possession where his Lakers did not go to the boards at all and allowed themselves to be pushed around by the physical Panther club.
"There was just a lot of things in the ballgame and they played well at that point," he said. "They woke up and scored six or eight points and I'm still very frustrated, all year it has been an Achilles heel for us, we can't close out quarters."
He noted how his team turned the ball over at the end of both the first quarter and second quarter.
"We work on it every week during practice and that is something we've got to get better on," he said. "Those things allow team's to get back into ballgames on you."
The third quarter of play saw the two 16th district teams slug it out, each using a number of combinations and shot selections to gain the upper hand. The Panthers then converted on several key buckets late in the quarter to put them up by four points.
Then the flow of the game completely changed. In the game's final quarter, Laker freshman Tyler Robertson connected on four 3-point baskets and the Lakers pushed past the Panthers, who couldn't seem to find an answer.
"We were getting stops at the other end and Tyler hits three 3's right in a row to break the game open," Feldhaus said. "You go from a tied ballgame to being up eight, with another bucket in there, in no time."
For the game the Lakers connected on 10 of 17 3-point baskets with none bigger than those in the game's final stretch. Senior Bryson McFall, the team's coach on the floor, scored 18 points in the ballgame and also hit four big three-point shots. Senior Robbie Bell, an all-region second team performer, led Russell County with 19 points and six rebounds after scoring just five points at the break.
"I think he was frustrated," Feldhaus said of Bell's first half play. "But he rose to the occasion in the second half, got into the paint and knocked down some shots and did the things that Robbie Bell is capable of doing."
Also scoring for Russell County, who shot 58 percent from the field as a team, were senior Lucas Justice with seven points, senior Zach Carney with six points and nine rebounds and senior Adam Justice with two points and five assists.
Seniors Shaun Wheat and Jacob Smith both scored 11 points each for the Panthers in the loss.
Speaking of his next opponent, Clinton County, Feldhaus said the size advantage inside went to the Bulldogs.
"We need to shoot the ball well again and we've got to be physical in the post," he said.
Feldhaus said if his team can outrebound or stay within one or two boards against a much larger Clinton County team, the Lakers will have chance to win their third 16th district crown in five seasons.