By RAY SCHAEFER — For The Independent
MOREHEAD--Brandon Baker must have spent at least 90 seconds Saturday hugging each of the East Carter Raiders he coaches.
Baker might have been the happiest, too. He watched his team hold off a late Ashland rally to secure a 59-49 16th Region semifinal win at Ellis T. Johnson Arena.
The Raiders meet Fairview for the title at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The Eagles dethroned three-time champion Elliott County, 57-52.
East Carter won its only regional crown in 1986, and Baker is connected — he was a sophomore starting point guard on that team.
“We’re concentrating on the present here, we’re 2010,” Baker said. “I’m not even sure they know I played basketball. This is their time, this is their show.”
As has been the case much of the season, senior Colt Barnhill’s 20 points and 14 rebounds led East (22-5) last night.
“That’s a great team effort, (Barnhill) had a big night, went to war for us,” Baker said. “He was taking a lot of contact, playing through contact. He finished it.”
As good as his numbers were, Barnhill will also be the first to share the love.
“It wasn’t me adapting, it was my players adapting around me,” Barnhill said. “We had a lot of back-door cuts around the back side.”
And there was a lot of love to share: senior Kyle Bair’s 13 points; the Raiders hitting 52.4 percent of their shots; and a defense that held Ashland to 34.6 from the field.
“We shot the ball very poorly (last night),” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs said. “We’ve got to do better than that to win a game against a bigger, stronger opponent…As far as what we wanted to do (Saturday), I thought we did every component except put the ball in the basket.”
Barnhill was largely responsible for East’s 75-60 win Jan. 26 in Grayson – his 24 points included 11-of-17 shooting from the field. To combat that, Biggs said there would be multiple Tomcats guarding him, which Baker anticipated.
“The key will be (Barnhill) not forcing shots in the double-team and trusting he’ll get the ball back,” Baker said before the game.
Barnhill mostly solved the pressure in Saturday’s first half. He opened the game with a field goal, but his two assists and 10 rebounds compensated for the two turnovers he committed.
East had more than Barnhill, who sat out the last two minutes of the first quarter. An example: senior Koty Buck’s five points and sophomore Connor Robinson’s three in the last two minutes gave the Raiders a 16-9 lead after eight minutes.
Ashland’s (22-7) offense, meanwhile didn’t go away from what it has done all year — fast-break at every opportunity and play as many as nine or 10. In fact, Biggs was hoping East would run with the Tomcats and wear itself on the larger court.
Instead, Ashland had more trouble: nine turnovers in the half to five assists and a 16-12 rebounding deficit.
Baker, meanwhile, knew the Tomcats’ Dylan Delaney scored 24 points in Friday’s 75-54 win over Fleming County. He said Dylan Genung and Kyle Bair would spend much of the night hounding Delaney.
Ashland might have felt it was playing against seven or eight Raiders. The Tomcats didn’t score the last 3:11 of the half, and they made just seven of 25 shots.
And Delaney? Just four points in the half and nine for the night on 4-of-11 shooting that included 1-of-7 from 3-point range.
“(Bair) spent a lot of energy chasing him around off screens,” Baker said. “… It’s a physical game when you have to guard him chasing him around.”
Barnhill scored six points in the second quarter, four from 15 feet out and farther. He scored four in the third, but trouble was coming – he picked up his fourth foul midway through the fourth.
Ashland took advantage of Barnhill’s absence. A 5-1 run pulled the Tomcats to 47-44 with 2:30 to go, and the Tomcat press befuddled the Raiders into no points for more than two minutes.
“They turned it up a notch, they sensed the urgency of the game,” Baker said.
The rest of the Raiders responded over the final two minutes. Barnhill and Tyler Clay each hit four free throws, Genung had a field goal and Caleb Adams made a free throw.
Baker was wrong about one thing: his players knew he was a part of the ‘86 title team. Barnhill is counting on that knowledge Monday.
“He knows how to handle the pressures as a coach, hopefully,” Barnhill said. “and he’ll be able to tell us what to do as a player.”
Parents of East Carter cheerleaders, players and faculty can buy tickets from 8-9:30 a.m. Monday in the gym lobby at the high school. Public ticket sales will run from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m.