The joke in Rupp Arena a few minutes before tip-off of Estill County’s first-ever Sweet Sixteen appearance Wednesday afternoon was that they’d emptied the county, locked all the doors and brought everybody to Lexington.
Looking around the Rupp stands, that wasn’t much of an embellishment.
Fans of the Engineers got to the building early Wednesday and made plenty of noise throughout their team’s opener. They played a big part in the 15,271 announced attendance number for the first session of the state tournament. They also watched their team fall, 50-40, to Corbin in the opening game of the event.
Just getting here was huge for this team and this community, however, and that was crystal clear from the opening tip to the postgame press conference, in which Coach Jon Bentley and three of his four starting seniors talked about their hometown pride and the unprecedented series of events that sent them to Rupp.
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“I’ve got four incredible seniors that are going to be graduating,” Bentley said. “Just what we’ve done for our community and our school … I’m just tickled to death, and so very proud of each and every person who helped along with this process.”
Bentley said he paused a few times during the game to look up at the crowd, which he called the biggest for one school he’d ever seen at the state tournament. Depending on where you looked, it easily could have been mistaken for a UK crowd at a Rupp home game due to all the Estill County blue in the stands.
“Our fans were just incredible, the support we have,” he said, “I’ve never seen it. The Estill County (crowd) is the biggest I’ve ever seen, and I got to coach it. It’s just special.
“These kids and these fans are going to remember this the rest of their lives. Especially these kids. And I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
One of his seniors, Engineers leading scorer Caleb Bonny, gave an impassioned response to a question about the school’s first trip to the state tournament, looking at his coach and teammates as he spoke.
“Every group that comes through has this goal of getting to Rupp Arena, and we did it,” Bonny said. “We came up short today, but we’re not going to hang our heads. We accomplished feats this year that no team has ever accomplished in school history. … These guys mean the world to me, and this county means the world to me.”