The visiting Panthers fell short in their upset bid as Bell County vaulted head coach Dudley Hilton into the No. 4 spot on the state's all-time wins list with a hard-fought 26-20 victory.
The victory was the Bobcats' seventh straight and was Hilton's 281st career win. He passed former Paintsville coach Walter Brugh for fourth among the state's winningest coaches. Next on the list is former Owensboro Catholic coach Mojo Hollowell with 285 career wins.
Mills, a longtime Bell assistant under Hilton before leaving to lead the Knox Central rebuilding bid last season, nearly kept Hilton tied for fourth.
Following a 30-minute delay due to lightening, the Panthers were trailing 20-14 midway through the third quarter and had a chance to take the lead with a 13-play drive that was aided by a face mast penalty on fourth down.
Knox drove all the way down to the Bell 16, but Bob Blevins' pass attempt on fourth down fell incomplete, allowing Bell to take over with 5:56 to play.
The Panthers forced a quick three-and-out and then blocked the Bell punt in the end zone, falling on the ball for a game-tying touchdowns.
Knox couldn't take the lead, however, as Bell junior linebacker Brent Slusher blocked the point-after kick to keep the game tied at 20-20.
Bell mounted an eight-play drive on its ensuing possession, but the Panthers came up with a big goal-line stand after the Bobcats got first and goal at the Central 8-yard line.
Jeff Howard was stopped at the 2 on first down, quarterback Kyle Nelson fumbled the snap and kept the ball, falling forward to the 1 and then Howard was stopped on a run up the middle within inches of the goal line.
Bell defeated Rockcastle County two weeks ago with a last-minute quarterback keeper, but Nelson was jammed at the line on fourth down.
Starting at their own 2, the Panthers couldn't pick up a first down and was forced to punt from the end zone. The kick was short, allowing Bell to take over at the Central 37.
On third and 1, Howard, who led Bell County with 123 yards on 23 carries, picked up 17 yards down to the Panther 11 and freshman fullback Tyler Harbin scored one play later to Bell on top.
The Bobcats opted to try for a two-point conversion and Howard was stopped at the line, but tossed the ball back to Nelson, who flipped a pass to Steven Hunter in the end zone, but the ball fell incomplete, leaving Bell with a 26-20 lead with nine minutes remaining in the game.
Knox Central tired a little trickery on its ensuing drive going for a fake punt on fourth and 7 at its own 43-yard line. Matt Bradley was stopped short of the first-down marker, allowing Bell to take over.
The Bobcats didn't fare much better, but used the good field position to avoid trying another risky punt, turning the ball over on downs at the Central 35.
The Panthers mounted one final drive in the last five minutes of the game. A 14-yard run by Matt Ramsey brought the ball past midfield and drew a time out from Bell as defensive coach Tom Greer came out to settle his unit.
The break worked as Jones gained 4 yards on first down, but Ramsey was stopped for a 1-yard gain a play later. Another run stop on third down left Central facing fourth and 3 at the Bell 35.
Mills tried some more trickery, but again the Bobcats sniffed it out as Hunter picked off the Panthers' halfback pass try inside the 15 with under four minutes remaining.
Knox Central began using its time outs trying to force a Bell punt and get one last try, but Nelson picked up a huge first down with a 24-yard run while facing first and 15 at the Bobcat 5-yard line.
Nelson, who ran for 104 yards on 14 carries, rumbled 14 yards for another first down, this time on third and 8 with just over a minute remaining.
The sophomore quarterback finished off the game by taking a knee and celebrating the Bobcats' third straight district title.
Knox Central got on the board early as sophomore running back T.R. Christopher fumbled on the Bobcats' second play of the game and junior defensive back Kyle Hart scooped up the ball and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown. Alex Esposito booted the point after and Knox Central led 7-0 less than a minute in.
A 36-yard scramble by Nelson set up Harbin's 4-yard touchdown plunge later in the period. Harbin was hit near the line of scrimmage, but the Bell line pushed the pile five yards and Harbin fell into the end zone.
The freshman saw his first significant action with the varsity and gained 51 yards on 11 carries, mostly in the first half.
Central reclaimed the lead with its only long scoring drive of the night. A 30-yard pass form Blevins to Chris Brown and a 35-yard jaunt by Ramsey highlighted the drive.
Central was backed up to the 27 on first and goal following a penalty, but Blevins hit senior tight end Stanton Peace in the end zone from 17 yards out and the Panthers took a 14-7 lead.
Bell marched 64 yards on its ensuing possession, tying the game on a 1-yard Nelson sneak with 2:57 remaining in the opening period.
While Knox waited for the kickoff, a close flash of lightening forced the referees to clear the field and signaled the start of a storm that brought torrential rains and hail.
After the delay, Bell's Derek Miracle recovered a Knox Central fumble to set up Bell's go-ahead touchdown. On fourth and 6 at the Central 16, Hilton called for a halfback pass, but Bell's worked as Christopher found Hunter in the end zone for a touchdown. The kick failed, leaving Bell with a six-point lead and setting up the exciting finish.
Ramsey led the Panthers with 87 yards on 16 carries. Josh Jones added 52 yards on 12 carries.
Bell County (7-2 overall, 5-0 district) will look to wrap up an undefeated district slate on Friday, traveling to Clay County.
Knox Central (5-4, 2-3) was eliminated from the playoff hunt with Friday's loss. Even if the Panthers could defeat visiting Rockcastle on Friday, and Clay falls to Bell, Knox and Clay would tie with 3-3 district records and Clay would take fourth place via last week's 25-7 win over the Panthers.