Friday night in Rupp Arena was small-school heaven.
Small-school heavyweights Shelby Valley and Elliott County battled each other, and all anyone wished was that these two mountain schools could have been matched up later in the National City Boys' Sweet Sixteen.
"This year is the year of the small school," said Shannon Blackburn, an elementary school assistant principal in Mingo, W.Va. He lives in Pike County, and he was sitting with his wife, Tiffany, in the Shelby Valley fan section. Tiffany Blackburn, from Morehead, was cheering for Elliott County.
There is a bit of intra-county rivalry among the Pike schools, Blackburn said, but in the past few weeks, the county has come together for Shelby Valley.
Elliott County has drawn plenty of attention as one of the smallest of the small schools. Both teams have flirted with the No. 1 ranking all season (Shelby Valley was rated No. 1 entering the Sweet Sixteen), and the Wildcats dealt Elliott one of its two losses this season, in the championship game of the All "A" Classic. In a way, Elliott was out for payback.
"They play with all their heart and soul," Jackie Adkins, a factory worker from Morehead, said of the Lions. She goes to all the Elliott games she can. She knows how the small schools feel — she played basketball for Wolfe County, not far from Elliott.
"You don't see a lot of teams from Eastern Kentucky make it down here," she said.
The Elliott team is special because of its four starting seniors who have played together since grade school, she said.
"The whole town is here," she said, supporting the team.
Before the game, the Elliott cheerleaders were crowned winners of the tournament contest. Jim Porter, whose third cousin is on the cheer team, took it as a good omen for the basketball game.
"Mountain people know what it means to the community" to be at this tournament, said Porter, who lives in Franklin, Ohio. His business card bills him as "Ohio's #1 UK fan," and he says he hails from Elliott and Green up counties in Kentucky.
"I wish I could be for both teams," he said.
Jean Almand, who has been coming to the Sweet Sixteen for 60 years, said the camaraderie at the tournament is nice.
"Everybody gets behind the small schools," she said. "We're usually for the small schools."
The only problem Friday night was which small school.