Bowling Green, which has won three consecutive undefeated state football championships, now has something to brag about state-wide in basketball, too.
The Purples beat Knott County Central 65-58 in the first round of the 97th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena on Thursday afternoon, their first state tournament victory in 23 years.
Purples Coach D.G. Sherrill said his team has been "under the radar" this season, but they're flying high after a terrific team effort against Knott Central.
Joseph Ayers, a lanky, long-armed, 6-foot-7 senior, led Bowling Green with 14 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.
"He was the difference-maker for us," Sherrill said. "He snatched big rebounds and hit big free throws for us, and did a great job altering some shots."
Sherrill thought Knott Central junior guard Camron Justice was the best player on the court, "but I thought we had the best team."
Blue Tisdale, who quarterbacked the Purples to their last two state football titles, had 13 points and guarded Justice most of the day.
Tucker Sine, an up-and-coming junior, had 11 points and six rebounds. Nacarius Fant, Mr. Football, had seven points and seven rebounds.
Malik Carothers came off the bench to get nine points, including five clutch free throws in the last 1:18.
Bowling Green's defense focused on Justice, a 6-2 shooting guard who can light it up from three-point range.
Sherrill said he studied lots of video on Justice. "I kept trying to find a deficit on him, but every time I watched him he got better."
The Purples' strategy was to make Justice work hard for his points. They ran two defenders at him at times, but Tisdale carried the load.
Tisdale said he usually does a lot of reaching on defense, "so I had to stay disciplined and respect him a lot. I just played him straight up."
Justice had 25 points, but he was 8-for-27 from the field, and just 3-for-11 on threes.
Justice said Bowling Green didn't do anything different defensively than what he sees every game. "They got me on a good night, I guess you could say. It's not like I was flat-out missing. I had four or five (shots) go in and rattle around. That happens."
Chance Cornett, a 6-3 junior, had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Patriots.
Evan Hall, a 6-6 junior, had 10 points and 11 rebounds, but found it tough going against Ayers. "He's a long kid, and he challenged me a lot down low. I gotta get used to that."
Ayers said he's not used to playing guys his size, so he couldn't "just flop around like I usually do."
Bowling Green led 36-26 early in the third quarter, but the Patriots rallied to edge ahead 46-44 on a pair of free throws by Justice early in the fourth quarter.
Knott Central's last lead came at 51-50 with 3:50 left. Bowling Green went on a 7-0 run to take control.
The Purples went up 63-55 on a spectacular play. Carothers led a fast break and bounced the ball off the backboard, setting up a slam by Ayers with 40 seconds left.
Ayers got a technical for hanging on the rim, but that wasn't enough to get Knott Central back in it.
Coach B.B. King, whose Patriots were in the Sweet Sixteen for the third year in a row, said the Purples "were just a better team today." As for Knott Central's shooting woes, he said, "It just happens. You try to fight through it. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't."
Bowling Green moves on to play McCracken County in Friday's quarterfinals. It's the first time the Purples have made it past the first round since they lost in the 1991 semifinals to eventual champ Fairdale. They lost in the first round in their previous two appearances in 2012 and 2009.