When the Sweet Sixteen crowd last saw Elisha Justice, the Shelby Valley star was leaving Rupp Arena with the state championship trophy and the state tournament MVP award.
That was only seven years ago.
On Wednesday, the first day of the historic 100th Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen, Justice was back.
Nattily attired in a gray sport coat and a maroon necktie, Justice, at the ripe old age of 26, returned to the state tournament as head coach of the 15th Region champion Pikeville Panthers.
“I really wasn’t nervous coming into it,” Justice said of his state tourney coaching debut. “We were just thankful to get to come down here and play.”
In the movie version, the Sweet Sixteen star returning as head coach so soon after his playing days would have left Rupp on Wednesday afternoon with a win.
Alas, basketball lacks a script, and 14th Region champion Perry County Central spoiled Justice’s return with a 61-46 victory over Pikeville before a crowd of 10,925.
Occasionally kneeling but mostly pacing in front of the Pikeville bench, Justice’s coaching demeanor was poised. Beneath the mostly calm exterior, one sensed a tightly coiled energy yearning to be unleashed.
“I would have given anything to have another opportunity to go back and play,” Justice said afterward.
It seems like yesterday — and, figuratively, it was — when Justice was going for 21 points, 28, 31 and 17 across four Sweet Sixteen games to lead Shelby Valley to the 2010 state title.
The 5-foot-10 guard (2,086 career points) also led the Pike County high school to three 15th Region titles and two All “A” Classic crowns while winning the 2010 Mr. Basketball award.
“By the time I got out of school, I knew I still had to be part of the game,” Justice said.
So after playing two years (2010-12) for Rick Pitino at Louisville and finishing up playing for Kelly Wells at the University of Pikeville, Justice entered the high school coaching ranks.
The two seasons prior to this, he was head man at June Buchanan, a private Christian school on the campus of Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes.
Justice put together back-to-back winning seasons, going 12-10 in 2014-15 and 20-10 last year while reaching the semifinals of the 14th Region Tournament.
When the Pikeville High School job opened, Athletics Director Jason Booher — who had been Justice’s coach at Shelby Valley — hired his former star guard. Booher and his former Shelby Valley assistant, Greg Newsome, were on the bench in Rupp as assistants for their former player Wednesday.
“Their experience in game situations and (with) little adjustments we need to make, they give me a lot of really good suggestions,” Justice says.
At June Buchanan, Justice coached a pair of post players from Nigeria, 6-foot-8 Idris Akinyemi and 6-9 Prince Anosike. When Justice left June Buchanan for Pikeville, Akinyemi and Anosike ended up at Perry Central.
In Wednesday’s game, Anosike had 10 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots; Akinyemi went for 10 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.
Their shot-altering presence helped harass Pikeville — whose starting lineup went 5-10, 5-10, 5-11, 6-3, 6-4 — into a 16-of-52 shooting performance.
Justice’s Sweet Sixteen coaching debut was foiled, largely, by two former players.
“Those are two great kids. A lot of people don’t know that,” Justice said. “Obviously, I wanted to win. But I will pull for those guys the rest of the way.”
The head coach on the bench opposite Justice on Wednesday was a pretty fair guard himself back in the day. Long before he was coach at Perry Central, Shannon Hoskins was an All-State guard who helped Clay County to the 1992 Sweet Sixteen semifinals.
What if the two coaches, in their primes, had gone head-to-head as players. Who would have won?
“I’m gonna say me,” Hoskins said with a laugh. “But I don’t know, (Justice) was a heck of a player.”
Who now aspires to be a heck of a coach.
Said Elisha Justice: “I’m still trying to learn and keep getting better and be the best coach I can be.”