Pikeville Coach Elisha Justice knows a thing or two about playing in games that mean something.
As a player he scored 21, 28, 31 and 17 over the course of four games to lead Shelby Valley to its first state title in 2010. He was named Sweet Sixteen MVP and later Mr. Basketball that year.
So, there was weight behind his opening statement in the post-game presser after his Panthers knocked off John Hardin, 72-69, after three overtime periods in the first round of the 101st Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Boys’ Sweet Sixteen basketball state tournament Wednesday night at Rupp Arena.
“That’s one of the best games that I’ve ever been a part of,” Justice said. “You go into three overtimes or whatever it was, and, I mean, the things that these guys did to put it into overtime?”
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Pikeville was the second-lowest ranked team coming into the tournament with a 65.8 in Dave Cantrall’s Rating the State (ahead of only Estill County, which was eliminated earlier Wednesday). John Hardin was ranked sixth with a 78.9 rating.
“We knew that John Hardin was the favorite and that everybody seemed to just be marking us off the list, and I told these guys, ‘I’ve got faith in you all,’” Justice said. “We all believed that we could come out and compete, and these guys proved it tonight. I’m just extremely, extremely proud of these guys.”
Pikeville trailed 52-49 with 3.8 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Wyatt Battaile connected on a buzzer-beating three-point try from the corner to force the first overtime.
The Panthers trailed by three again in the second overtime after Bulldogs star Mickey Pearson hit a couple of free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining. Battaile looked to get a shot off but got the ball to Evan Rhodes, who was fouled on a three-point attempt from the corner. He sank the first two with 3.6 seconds left before John Hardin called a timeout; he knocked down the last one after the stoppage and a half-court heave by Pearson fell short.
Christian Billiter, a junior, drilled a three-pointer near the top of the key to tie the game at 61-all in the second overtime with 11.6 seconds left. John Hardin senior Malik Wright got off a clean three-point try from the top of the line but it hit iron and Pikeville gathered the rebound as time expired.
The Panthers jumped out to a 65-61 lead 54 seconds into the third overtime after a jumper by Battaile and a Conner Roberts layup off a steal by Rhodes. The Bulldogs pulled to within two points but never got closer; a three-point try could have tied the game in the final seconds but they didn’t get a shot off from beyond the arc.
Justice tried to recall the big moments after the game.
“Not many guys can step up and hit three free-throws, clutch, the way that Evan did,” Justice said. “And not only him. Wyatt hits a huge shot, I think, to send it into the first overtime. Christian Billiter? He hits a big three to send it, I think, to put it into the third one. Just amazing plays that these guys made. They fought and they never gave up.”
Battaile, a senior, finished with a game-high 30 points on 10-for-29 shooting. He was 5-for-12 from behind the three-point line and led Pikeville with seven rebounds.
Conner Roberts had 14 points for Pikeville to go along with six rebounds, two coming in the final 1:03 of the second overtime as he gave the Panthers multiple chances to tie the game.
Each team only scored three points in the second overtime, a period in which Pikeville missed six straight free throws. The Panthers were 14 of 26 from the line overall; John Hardin wasn’t much better at 16 of 26.
It was the fourth game to go three or more overtimes in the history of the boys’ Sweet Sixteen. Henry Clay defeated Carlise County, 35-33, in three overtimes in the 1983 championship game and Mason County defeated Trinity, 66-59, in the 2004 quarterfinals. Ashland Blazer defeated Carr Creek, 13-11, when the 1928 finals were decided after four overtime periods.
Pearson, John Hardin’s star senior who’s signed with St. Louis University, finished with 18 points and eight rebounds. He was only 4-for-6 from the field — hitting two of his three tries from the three-point line — but was 8-for-10 from the free-throw line.
Pearson fouled out with 1:37 left in the second overtime while Wright, who led John Hardin with 19 points and 10 rebounds, fouled out with 1:48 left in the final extra period.
John Hardin outrebounded the Panthers 43-30 and had an 11-5 edge in blocked shots.
Pikeville finished with 21 assist on 25 made baskets and got 13 points off its bench to just four for the Bulldogs. The Panthers came away with eight steals to two for John Hardin.
In his post-game column for KHSAA.org, former Herald-Leader sportswriter Mike Fields argued that it was one of the best games ever played in the Sweet Sixteen.
“Pity those fans who trickled out of Rupp Arena before it was over,” Fields wrote.