Hopkinsville star JaQualis Matlock admitted he was "kinda nervous" when he fouled out with the Tigers leading Taylor County 62-56 with 3:36 left in their showdown in Rupp Arena Wednesday.
"Usually, in the past when I go out, the team goes down," Matlock said. "This year they fight and stay together.
"They told me as I was going off the court, they got this one for me."
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Hopkinsville kept attacking and went on to beat Taylor County 76-64 in the first round of the 98th Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen in front of 12,457 fans.
Coach Tim Haworth was impressed by the way his team played after Matlock went to the bench.
"In years past, we probably couldn't do that," he said. "This is probably the toughest team I've had from a mental standpoint."
Taylor County Coach Richard Gatewood said he "thought it was phenomenal" the way Hopkinsville responded without Matlock.
The Cardinals cut Hopkinsville's lead to 64-60 on Quentin Goodin's jumper, and the got the ball back on a turnover. But Hopkinsville forced a quick turnover, and Jordan Gary's layup made it 66-60.
After another Taylor County turnover, Jordan McGee's three-point play pushed the lead to 69-60 with 1:20 left, all but sealing the victory.
"I tell them in this tournament, every shot is a big shot, every rebound is a big rebound, every turnover is big turnover," Haworth said. "When you do make a mistake, you just keep fighting, and I thought we did a good job of that today."
Hopkinsville, in the Sweet Sixteen for the fourth year in a row, showed its balance and depth. Ten players scored, five hit double figures.
Matlock, a 6-foot-5 senior starting in his fourth consecutive state tournament, led with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Senior guards LeDonald Gray and Jordan Gary had 11 points each, and combined for 10 rebounds and five assists.
Sophomore C.J. Henagan and senior reserve A.J. Tyler also had 11 points each. Tyler did all his scoring in the first half, including 3-for-3 three-point shooting.
"That definitely was a shocker," Gatewood said of Tyler's long bombs. "I looked at my bench and said, 'Where was this guy in the last five films we watched?'"
The Cards, 5th Region champs for the first time since 1983, did themselves no favors. They hit just over 50 percent of their foul shots, and they had a tough time finishing at the rim.
"We just couldn't get over the hump," Gatewood said. "It's very hard to beat a top 10 team in the state on a neutral floor by going 17 of 32 from the free throw line and missing bunnies."
Goodin, the top-rated junior in the state, had 23 points, six rebounds and four assists. Haworth said the Tigers might've contained him better "if they let us play six or seven guys against him.
"He's strong, he's got a great body, he's a high-Division I player, and more importantly, he's a good teammate. I can tell out on the floor it's not about him."
David Sloan, a sophomore, had 19 points. Brandon Berry, a senior, added eight points and six rebounds.
Gatewood was sobbing before the postgame interviews, and his players were wiping tears away from their eyes when they took the podium.
"I took this job two years ago and told them it was a four-year plan to get to the state tournament, and we did it in two," he said. "I know it's a process, but it's extremely hard to get over this. But I tell them, if there's anywhere I want them to cry, I want it to be at Rupp Arena."
Goodin felt Hopkinsville's tournament experience showed at crunch time.
"When it came down the stretch, they knew how to play the game because they'd already been here before," he said.
"We played really, really hard and left our hearts out on the floor. They were just the better team today."