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Elisha Justice is 55-28 as a head coach. This is his first season at Pikeville after two at June Buchanan.
1) Kyle Watkins, 5-10, So., 8.1 ppg
2) Wyatt Battaile, 6-4, Jr., 20.5 ppg
5) Evan Rhodes, 5-10, Jr., 6.4 ppg
11) Connor Roberts, 5-10, So., 10.2 ppg
12) Cade Byers, 6-3, Jr., 4.8 ppg
How they got here
The Panthers were a slight favorite to win the 15th Region according to the Cantrall Ratings, but most spectators in Eastern Kentucky expected Johnson Central, which won four of the previous five titles, to again take the crown. Pikeville blistered the net in the finals, connecting on nearly 60 percent of its shots in a 95-84 victory.
Justice quickly moved from June Buchanan, which has one Sweet Sixteen trip in its 32 years of basketball, to Pikeville, which used to be a mainstay in the field.
“I’m thankful to them; they believed in me and gave me that starting spot,” Justice said. “… Pikeville, that’s a place where you have expectations, and there is a little more pressure on you to win. But it’s been great. The support that we have up here, I feel like our fans have been outstanding, especially throughout the regional tournament.
“Our students, the whole community just got behind these guys and have been out following ’em. It really makes a difference.”
Mr. Basketball back in town
Justice, who won Mr. Basketball after leading Shelby Valley to a state championship in 2010, returns seven years later with that experience branded on his brain.
“If you get there, anything can happen,” he said. “I tried to tell my guys how amazing it is to get down there to Rupp Arena and just tried to explain to ’em that this is something you will never forget.”
Justice, the youngest coach in the tournament at 26, is still plenty spry to give his guys an extra body in practice.
“Of course I like to get out there every now and then and play with them a little bit,” Justice said with a laugh.
Player to watch
Wyatt Battaile, a junior who started at quarterback for Pikeville’s 2015 state champion football team, also knows what to do with a round ball. He leads the Panthers in rebounding (7.2 per game) in addition to scoring.
“In my opinion he’s the best player in the region,” Justice said. “I think he’s just been underrated all year and I’ve said that from day one. People didn’t know how good he was, and he’s shown that.”
Pikeville has played in 14 state tournaments but is in the field for the first time since 1999.
Perry County Central
Shannon Hoskins has been the head coach at Perry County Central for four seasons after five as an assistant with the program. His only other prior head coaching gig was at Jackson City during the 2004-05 season. He is 105-51 overall.
20) Damon Tobler, 6-4, Sr., 16.3 ppg
23) Idris Akinyemi, 6-8, Sr., 6.8 ppg
24) Noah Back, 6-3, So., 13.6 ppg
32) Austin Hill, 6-2, Sr., 10.9 ppg
44) Princewell Anosike, 6-9, Sr., 8.4 ppg
How they got here
Since the new year started, Perry County Central lost only twice: at Lexington Catholic in double-overtime and to George Washington, one of the top-ranked teams in West Virginia. The Commodores reached their third straight region championship under Hoskins and finally broke through, defeating Knott County Central, 57-50.
The Commodores struggled somewhat out of the gate while dealing with the eligibility of Akinyemi and Anosike, a couple of senior bigs who transferred from June Buchanan. The pair initially were ruled ineligible by the KHSAA but have been permitted to play since the end of December after a judge’s injunction.
“As long as there’s controversy and anything like that and you’re dealing with teenagers, it affects ’em,” Hoskins said. “It’s definitely had an impact on our team and our guys throughout the year. But they’ve really toughed through it mentally and emotionally.”
Perry Central is paired with Pikeville in the first round. That game is opposite the Harlan County-Scott matchup, which means the mountains have great odds of sending a team to the final four.
“With South Laurel being there last year, that’d be back-to-back years that a mountain team could have an opportunity to be in the mix for things on Saturday, which has not held true in recent years,” Hoskins said. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Player to watch
Damon Tobler played three years in the post before taking over point guard duties this season for the Commodores. The transition was rocky at first but he’s taken to it well; Tobler leads Perry Central in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals.
“He’s really done everything for us,” Hoskins said. “… He’s a hell of an athlete. His strength, his size and his speed help him, especially in the area we’re in cause people really can’t stay in front of him and pressure him.
“And he has a good mind for the game. He understands that he has some limitations and he tries to stay away from those.”
Perry County Central will play in its seventh Sweet Sixteen. The Commodores lost in the first round each of their prior appearances except in 2004, when they reached the quarterfinals.
Pikeville vs. Perry County Central
What: First round of boys’ Sweet Sixteen basketball state tournament
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday