BARBOURVILLE — Boys’ teams across the 13th Region should consider themselves put on notice. Knox Central is just about back to full strength and the Panthers were very impressive in getting past Pineville 78-69 in Tuesday’s 51st District semifinal.
The Panthers were consistently able to find the soft spots in Pineville’s zone and then beat the Lions’ press repeatedly in the fourth quarter. They topped it all off by hitting 14 of 21 free throws in the final period to hold on for the nine-point win.
Knox was led by Matthew Barger’s 23 points while Jeffrey Adams added 22. Center Tobie Merida finished with 14 points and forward Chad Marsee added eight.
The Mountain Lions got 20 points from senior center John Simpson while senior point guard Seth Jeffrey added 18, Cody Collett 12 and Byron David Asher 11.
There were two big keys to Central building an 11-point halftime lead. The first was that the Lions hit just one of seven free throws in the first half, the second was that they took advantage of Simpson picking up a cheap second foul with just under seven minutes to play in the half.
Jeffrey hit a 3 with 6:04 to go in the second to bring the Lions within 17-16, but Knox closed the half on a 16-6 run with Merida scored eight points during the spurt and Barger hitting a pair of 3s. By halftime the Panthers led 33-22.
“Our forte all year has been to be able to hit free throws and we went one out of seven in the first half and that set the tone,” Pineville coach J.D. Strange said. “Give Knox Central a lot of credit, they played hard, they played well and they played smart. When they had certain lineups in there we got behind and got slow. I thought our kids fought hard trying to get back in it, but the damage was done too early.”
Three consecutive 3-pointers from Adams pushed the Panther lead to 44-29 by the 4:31 mark of the third quarter and the Lions struggled to cut into the deficit. Simpson scored inside with under a minute to go in the quarter and later hit a free throw as the Lions trailed 50-38 after three.
Jeffrey drove in for a layup to start the fourth quarter to get the Lions within 10, but Barger and Nathan Cole were able to get behind the Lion press after every made basket and the lead was still 62-50 midway through the fourth quarter.
“Yeah, they handled the press. They were getting layups and we couldn’t just match points with them, we had to get stops,” Strange said. “We rotated back okay, but they were just able to beat us (to the basket).
Asher used a spin move along the baseline to get free for a short jumper, Collett hit two free throws and Simpson scored inside and then hit two free throws of his own during an 8-2 run that got the Lions as close as 70-64 with 58.8 seconds to go.
But Barger again got free behind the press and was streaking to the basket when Simpson gave him a little shove in the lane to prevent the layup. An intentional foul was called and Barger hit three of four free throws to pretty well put the game away. The Panthers went on to win by nine.
The loss ends the season for the Mountain Lions with a record of 18-11. It was the final high school game for seniors Simpson, Asher, Jeffrey, Jared Philpot and Jacob Skinner. Those five were all a big part of Pineville’s regional semifinal team last year and Strange said they have a lot to be proud of.
“Overall it’s been a good year because we haven’t backed away from anybody and we’ve played a lot of great games. At the same time, we were hoping it would be a greater one,” he said. “They won 18 games and that’s a pretty good amount of wins for the schedule that we had. I’m proud of them, proud of their effort. This time of year you have to be on top of things and Knox Central was a little bit more on top of it than we were.
“They’ve really invested a lot and they had high expectations. I know they’re disappointed more than anybody else.”
Looking ahead to next season the Lions will have Collett returning to the backcourt with starting experience. He figures to be joined by Isaac Longworth who saw plenty of action this season. In the front court the Lions have Dalton Ledbetter and Connor Ford coming back. Ford provided a spark off the bench on Tuesday with four points and a couple of steals in the first quarter.
“(Ford) gave us a big lift and our team next year might be a little bit quicker, obviously they’ll be more inexperienced,” Strange added. “They’ll be an exciting bunch if they invest the time in the gym like basketball players should then I think we can be competitive.”
Knox Central (16-13) advances to play host Barbourville in the 51st District championship game Thursday at 7 p.m. The win also qualifies the Panthers for next week’s 13th Region Tournament.
— — —
Knox Central…12…21…17…28 — 78
Pineville……….10…12…16…31 — 69
KNOX CENTRAL (78): Matthew Barger 23, Jeffrey Adams 22, Tobie Merida 14, Chad Marsee 8, Nathan Cole 7, Jacob Wilburn 2, Dustin Hensley 2.
PINEVILLE (69): John Simpson 20, Seth Jeffrey 18, Cody Collett 12, Byron David Asher 11, Connor Ford 4, Jared Philpot 3, Jacob Skinner 1, Isaac Longworth 0.