After No. 1 Eastern narrowly escaped with a 54-51 victory over Warren Central in the first round of the 94th PNC/KHSAA Sweet Sixteen on Wednesday afternoon, senior Remy Abell was asked when he thought the Eagles hit their rhythm during the game.
"I don't know if we ever hit it," Abell said.
Coach Jason Couch, sitting nearby, nodded his head in agreement.
With no rhythm, Eastern could have easily been singing the blues.
Instead, the Eagles found a way to win by making clutch plays in a taut, every-possession-counts fourth quarter.
"When we needed to be tough, our leadership and experience paid off," Couch said. "I'm proud of the way we took care of the game that last four minutes."
The closing seconds were especially tense.
After Warren Central got to within 52-51 with 10 seconds left, Eastern tried to inbound the ball to Abell. He couldn't control the pass, however, and it went out of bounds.
But the referee on the spot ruled Warren Central was the last to touch it.
Abell later said he was being held, and Couch agreed, saying that's why Eastern retained possession.
Dragons Coach Tim Riley disagreed, saying if Abell was fouled, it should've been whistled. Otherwise it should have been Warren Central's ball.
Given another chance, Abell got the ball, was fouled and hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left.
Warren Central had a shot to tie, but Jordan Shanklin's three-point try from the top of the key rimmed out as the buzzer sounded and the 16,704 fans in Rupp Arena let out a collective gasp.
The stars on both teams shone.
Three of Eastern's Division I signees, Lyonell Gaines (IUPUI), Kameron Woods (Butler) and Abell (Bradley), had 46 of the Eagles' 54 points.
The 6-foot-6 Gaines had 19 points and four rebounds.
"He's not flashy, but he seems to get a whole lot done for them," Riley said.
Woods had 14 points and nine rebounds. Abell added 13 points.
Warren Central's D-I guys — George Fant (WKU) and Shanklin (IUPUI) — had 39 of their team's 51 points.
Fant was a terror early, getting 11 points in the first quarter. He finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Fant excelled despite being slowed by a cold and congestion. "George gave us everything he's got, but he's got more to give when he's not sick," Riley said.
Shanklin rallied the Dragons with 10 points in the third quarter. He finished with 18.
"We've only got one ball, and we wanted it in our two Division I guys' hands," Riley said.
When Eastern was never able to get in front by more than six points, Couch knew what was in store.
"As good as (Fant and Shanklin) are, you knew it'd come down to the fourth quarter," he said.
"Hopefully we got our worst game out of the way. The problem is, we play the third-ranked team in the state (Clark County) next."
Gaines said they aren't feeling the pressure of being the favorite this week.
"We never think about being the team to beat. We just do our thing, handle our business, and we'll be fine."
Couch put his team's close call against Warren Central in historical perspective.
He told his Eagles how in 2003 Mason County, led by Chris Lofton, sidestepped St. Henry 59-57 in the first round of the Sweet Sixteen and went on to win the title.
"I'm not saying that's what we're going to do, but the name of the game in the post-season is survive and advance," Couch said.