High School Sports

Sweet Sixteen preview: Murray vs. Buckhorn

Shannon Blank and his Buckhorn teammates are “in on the joke” by sporting mullets.
Shannon Blank and his Buckhorn teammates are “in on the joke” by sporting mullets. AP

MURRAY

Region: 1st

Record: 29-5

Enrollment: 477

Coach’s résumé

Bart Flener is 52-15 in two seasons at Murray and 303-166 overall in 16 seasons at the high school level (including two seasons at Lexington Catholic). He also spent six seasons as the head coach of the Asbury University women’s program.

Starters

0 Ethan Clark 6-3 Sr. 8.7 ppg

3 Preston English 6-3 Jr. 12.5 ppg

4 Tre Hornbuckle 6-4 Sr. 8.1 ppg

10 Duane Curtis 6-0 Sr. 10.0 ppg

23 James Boone 6-6 Sr. 13.1 ppg

How they got here

Veterans and versatility have led Murray to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in 31 years. The Tigers use a nine-player rotation that includes seven seniors and two juniors, and Flener says they’re comfortable playing at any speed. Defense has been their calling card. Opponents are averaging just 50.1 points per game against Murray this season. “We play multiple defenses,” Flener said. “We’ve really, I think, become a great defensive team.” This bunch has played in seven championship games over the past two seasons — two All “A” regionals, one All “A” state, and a pair of district and region title games each. “The spotlight has not caused them to shy away or step back,” Flener said. “They’ve really embraced the opportunities.”

One (hundred) to remember

In three previous trips to the Sweet Sixteen, the only time Murray pulled off a victory remains a game for the record books. The Tigers defeated Holmes 100-93 in 1977 for the program’s only win in the state tournament. That contest stands as the third-highest scoring game in Sweet Sixteen history, and Murray is still one of only six teams to score 100 points in a state tournament game. The leading scorer on that team, Raymond Sims, spoke to the current squad earlier this season. James Wells, a member of the 1985 Sweet Sixteen team, has also met with these Tigers. “We felt like it was important for these guys to understand that Murray does have a rich basketball tradition,” Flener said.

Player to watch

Boone is the 1st Region player of the year and leads the Tigers with 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Flener says the big lefty can play all five positions — and has at times this season — and has also developed into a great defensive player. He has already signed with Samford and will play under the tutelage of former University of Kentucky standout Scott Padgett starting next season. After Boone signed in the fall, Padgett said he could play anywhere from point guard to power forward at the college level.

Sweet history

The Tigers are in the state tournament for the fourth time. They previously made the trip in 1974, 1977 and 1985.

BUCKHORN

Region: 14th

Record: 19-15

Enrollment: 156

Coach’s résumé

John Noble is 214-176 in 14 seasons with the Wildcats. He played for the team in 1989, the last time Buckhorn made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

Starters

0 Ryan Boggs 6-1 Sr.11.2 ppg

1 Shannon Blank 5-10 Jr. 4.4 ppg

4 Josh Crank 6-1 Sr. 12.9 ppg

22 Connor Hoskins 6-3 Sr. 22.1 ppg

33 Daniel Hurley 6-4 Jr. 3.3 ppg

How they got here

The preseason expectations were high for Buckhorn, and Noble said the squad wasn’t prepared to deal with that early on. They won just eight of their first 21 games and had only three home games before February, playing a tough road schedule that included showcases in Lexington and Louisville. Noble said a double-overtime loss in late January to Jackson City, which Buckhorn had beaten by 23 points three weeks earlier, opened his players’ eyes and turned the season around. The Wildcats won 11 of their last 13 games, including a 54-51 overtime victory over Perry County Central, which had beaten them twice this season, in the region finals.

Business in the front …

Noble thought one of his former players, Peyton Cooper, was joking when he came up to him three years ago and asked if the coach would mind if he grew a mullet. Cooper graduated last year, but the mullet remains fashionable for Buckhorn, which has attracted attention for the offbeat hairstyle worn most notably by junior Shannon Blank. “I think the mullet has kind of come to represent what we’re about as a team,” Noble said. “I think it’s made them tougher. If you’re going to wear a mullet in 2016, you better be prepared for what’s going to come with it.” That has included taunts from opposing student sections. Buckhorn’s players laugh it off. “I don’t know if people realize it or not, but we’re in on the joke,” Noble said.

Player to watch

Hoskins dropped 30 pounds in the offseason and showed up for his senior year in outstanding shape. Noble said he can score from just about anywhere, plays in the post occasionally and is excellent at reading defenses. Hoskins likes to shoot, and he does it well, hitting three-pointers at a 44 percent clip this season. “He’s shooting the ball, I think, as well as anybody in the state of Kentucky,” Noble said.

Sweet history

This is Buckhorn’s third trip to the state tournament after making the Sweet Sixteen field in 1988 and 1989. The Wildcats are still looking for their first victory in a state tournament game.

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