Elliott County's dream of playing for the state basketball title crashed into the reality of an ultra-talented, well-coached Holmes team in the semifinals of the National City Boys' Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon.
Holmes took the roar out of the Lions and their maroon-clad fans by controlling the game from the second quarter on and winning 67-57 before a crowd of 16,400.
Holmes set a school record with its 35th victory of the season and earned a shot at its first state title.
The Bulldogs' bark is sometimes worse than their bite, but that hasn't been the case through three rounds of this state tournament.
They were solid in an opening-round win over Christian County, dazzling in a quarterfinal knockout of Lexington Catholic, and coldly efficient on both ends of the floor against Elliott County.
The junior trio of 6-foot-7 Elijah Pittman, 6-4 Ricardo Johnson and his 6-3 brother Jeremiah Johnson was too long and athletic for the Lions to handle.
Pittman had 23 points and 11 rebounds. Ricardo contributed 17 points, five assists and four rebounds. Jeremiah added 11 points and eight rebounds.
Holmes' defense held Elliott County 30 points below its state-leading average.
Jonathan Ferguson, who came into the game averaging 25 points, was limited to 15. Evan Faulkner had six points, less than half his average.
"That was the difference," Bulldogs Coach David Henley said.
Ethan Faulkner provided Elliott County's spark with 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Timmy Knipp, a 6-7 sophomore, added 10 points and seven rebounds.
Holmes led by eight points at halftime, but Henley warned his team about what would happen if Elliott County rallied.
"The nature of the beast of the state tournament is that people always get behind the mountain teams ... people want to see stories like that, and rightfully so.
"We told our guys at halftime that if Elliott County makes a run, don't be surprised if there's 15,000 (fans) on their side, and that it's going to come down to handling adversity. ... I thought we handled adversity with toughness."
Elliott County's strongest run came in the closing minutes. It sliced a 59-47 deficit to 61-57 with 1:37 left.
The Lions had two more possessions to get even closer, but two turnovers killed their comeback.
"We never could get over the hump," Ethan Faulkner said.
Elliott County's loss ended a memorable three-year run during which the Lions won 83 games and made three trips to the state tournament.
The loss to Holmes was the last game for Coach Rick Mays, who is retiring with 400 wins in 28 years, and a special place in his heart for his last team.
"It's been great," Mays said with tears in his eyes.
The Lions' goal all season was to make it to Saturday night's finals. Ethan Faulkner said it was a good season, "but because we didn't meet our ultimate goal, you can't call it a great season."
Mays then added: "I tell them all the time to shoot for the moon. The closer you get, you're going to be more successful, and they've done that."
Henley also saluted the Lions.
"Those guys are great basketball players, and it's been a joy to watch them play," he said. "Shaking hands with those kids after the game — the two Faulkners and Ferguson — they look you in the eye, congratulate you and say good luck tonight. Just class kids."