By RAY SCHAEFER
Ashland boys basketball coach Buddy Biggs is normally somewhat taciturn after a game.
Not Tuesday at Rowan County.
Biggs threw up his arms, screamed “Yeah!” and turned about 10 shades of red. With good reason: Steven Friley’s two free throws with 14.1 seconds left and Dikembe Dixson’s 27 points and 14 rebounds were enough to help give the Tomcats a 62-57 win at Warren H. Cooper Gymnasium.
“I’m really happy for our kids,” Biggs said. “... We went through a rough January. We had five losses in the month of January against really good opponents, some of them on the road, so we really wanted to come in here and beat a quality opponent on the road, and I’m really happy for the kids that they were able to accomplish that.”
Ashland won its sixth straight game. Biggs said it’s the result of “practicing better, practicing more efficiently, and that’s carried over onto the court.”
Dixson was upset with his first-half performance (just four points and two fouls), and he took it out on the Viking defense. Especially in the fourth quarter — he scored 16 of Ashland’s 20 points.
“Actually, (Biggs) was on me to start driving the ball, especially early in the game,” Dixson said. “... I like to shoot threes. I never was much of a driver, but I started driving the ball a lot; it’s helped me out a lot.”
The Tomcats and Vikings exchanged the lead eight times and tied nine more, so of course the outcome wasn’t decided until the last minute.
With 2:10 to go, Dixson’s five-foot leaner off an offensive rebound gave Ashland (18-8) a 54-51 lead, which lasted 29 seconds because Justin Graham’s 3-pointer (10 points) tied the score at 54 apiece.
Dixson’s two free throws gave the Tomcats a 56-54 advantage. This time, Rowan County’s Jalen Stone (he led his team with 16 points) drained the last of his three 3-pointers, and the Vikings were up by 57-56 with 37 seconds to go.
“I tried to get a timeout,” Rowan County coach Shawn Thacker said. “I mean, I can’t get a break on getting a timeout. That’s not casting stones at anybody … I guess I can’t scream loud enough.”
Friley had his defender behind him when he made his move toward the basket. Rowan County’s Josh Barnard fouled him, and Friley concentrated on relaxing.
“I just dribble it three times, take a breath and knock it down,” Friley said.
Things went wrong for Rowan County after that: Barnard fouled out with 3.3 seconds remaining, and Dixson hit two double-bonus free throws; the Vikings committed the last of their 21 turnovers on the ensuing possession; and Dixson hit one more field goal with a second left.
“We didn’t do a good job of keeping (Dixson) from getting the ball in the high post,” Thacker said. “We didn’t do a good job keeping him off the backboard. We didn’t do a good job.”
There were other reasons for Biggs’ jubilation: Ashland’s 46-24 lead in rebounding, including 33 offensive boards; the 12 second-chance points; and 54 defensive stops to Rowan County’s 33.
One would have thought Rowan County (13-10) would have suffered early because starting guard Tyler Thacker missed the first quarter for violating a team rule and Ashland’s Nick Miller drained a 3-pointer from the left corner just eight seconds into the game.
Stone and Graham weren’t perturbed even a little bit. Stone converted Graham’s pass into a 3-pointer 25 ticks in, and they switched roles a little more than 35 seconds later on Graham’s 2-pointer.
Dixson scored his only bucket of the quarter on a tip-in over Rowan County’s Matt Brown. Ashland senior forward Zach Hart scored eight of his 12 first-half points in the quarter, the last an eight-foot floater with 30 seconds left.
Hart finished with 12 points. He wasn’t sure if he’s ever had a hot streak like last night’s.
“I haven’t been shooting too well outside, so I started driving the ball,” Hart said.
Rowan County took a 23-15 lead nearly three minutes into the second quarter on Tyler Thacker’s baseline drive. He finished with 11 points.
Hart’s outside shooting eventually improved — a 13- and 15-footer and two free throws combined with two charities from Friley later tied the game at 25-all late in the second, followed by Stone’s five points in the final minute.
After the game, broadcaster Dicky Martin suggested Biggs dedicate last night’s win to his parents, Jim and Elisa Biggs, who live in Starke, Fla., and are suffering from several health issues. Biggs didn’t know if they were listening online, but he was pretty sure they’d be at Johnson Arena for the 16th Region tournament if the Tomcats get there.
“Oh, yeah,” Biggs said. “They do it all the time.”