Boys Sweet Sixteen preview: Bringing the A game: Tomcats look to preparation and strong defense in state opening round

Mar. 20—ASHLAND — As Ashland gears up for a sixth straight trip to Rupp Arena, the special opportunity is not lost on coach Ryan Bonner.

"We love having the opportunity to still be together in late March," Bonner said. "That's always a good feeling to still be together practicing. and it just seems like our energy level keeps increasing every day."

The high energy will be needed when the Tomcats step on the court to face Lyon County today.

The Lyons (yes that's how they spell it) boast a 32-3 record and are ranked fourth in the final Kentucky media rankings.

Oh, and they have Kentucky's Mr. Basketball, and future Kentucky Wildcat, Travis Perry, who is the all-time leading scorer in KHSAA history with 5,393 career points and counting.

Bonner is well aware of what Lyon County brings to the table and wants his squad to be prepared as much as possible for the challenge.

"I'm already hearing Rupp Arena is going to be packed to see Perry," Bonner said. "And rightfully so, he's a tremendous player. We have to rely on our preparation to get us through moments of pressure like that. We're going to be ultra-prepared. We're going to know what they're doing on both ends of the floor and these guys are going to be keyed in on that."

Senior Asher Adkins echoed that same sentiment about preparedness.

"It really goes back to the people we have in our locker room," Adkins said. "The coaches and the staff, and how we practice and prepare. It also has a lot to do with our strength to schedule. When you have that 'A' across your chest, you know you're getting everybody's best game in the regular season."

The Tomcats didn't take the regular season lightly and scheduled tough opponents to get the team ready for this point in the season. It included a tussle with the No. 1 Great Crossing, who defeated Ashland, 72-59.

"They couldn't have handled this schedule any better," Bonner said. "It exploited us in the right ways. It created a lot of uncomfortable moments in the film sessions for sure, but we wouldn't be sitting here right now in this interview had we not done that from a scheduling standpoint."

The tough schedule definitely paid off and Ashland looks to be playing its best basketball heading into the state tournament.

Zander Carter leads the team in scoring with 22.7 ppg and in rebounding with 6.5. But it'll take a team effort to get past the Lyons.

Plenty of responsibility will fall on others to produce points as Lyon County looks to contain Carter.

One of those players who'll be expected to step up under the bright lights in Rupp Arena is junior Braxton Jennings.

"I just knew coming into this year that I was going to have to play a big role on this team for us to get to where we are now," Jennings said. "During the offseason, I worked my butt off. I came in and got up shots and I just feel like I know how to play my role."

The role has definitely increased for Jennings on this year's squad compared to last year and he credits a lot of his success to the strength he's gained playing football.

"I've been gaining size in the weight room and improving my quickness," Jennings said. "I feel like getting bigger really has helped me because I move people out my way and I can get to that ball off the rim, get it and put it back in or get it, push into transition and go."

Jennings is the second leading scorer on the Tomcats with 10.1 ppg and has become a pivotal part of the team's makeup.

"I don't think there's anybody in the 16th Region that can keep him in front," Adkins said of Jennings. "When you have his strength and his quickness and his jumping abilities, it's a problem to stop."

Adkins has seen his share of great Ashland players during his stint with the team. In his first year during the 2019-20 season, Ashland won the 16th Region with a perfect 33-0 record before COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the state tournament.

For Adkins, being on that team helped shape him as a player.

"I didn't contribute much to that team, but it was great getting to watch and learn from those guys," Adkins said. "Ethan Hudson, Justin Bradley, Cole Villers, Colin Porter, Ethan Sellars, and Nolan Phillips, all those guys taught me taught me how to play basketball better. and when these guys are 33-0, you better listen to them because they know what they're talking about."

The Lyons come into the game averaging 85.7 ppg as a team, but it's not like the Tomcats haven't locked down big-scoring teams before.

Another set of Lions from Boyd County entered the 16th Region championship game averaging 81 ppg. Ashland held them to just 47 points in that matchup.

In fact, none of the Tomcats' opponents put up more than 47 in the region tournament. That stifling defense will need to be on full display in Lexington if Ashland wants to make a run.

"We don't want to give anybody anything easy," Bonner said "Our whole mindset, defensively, is to hold everybody to one tough attempt and get the rebound, and then let's go play offense. and obviously, transition defense is going to be huge."

Bonner sees the matchup with Lyon County as comparable to the most recent matchup with Boyd County.

"It's really a similar game prep to Boyd because they're a very transition-oriented team," Bonner said. "They want to score as early in the possession as possible. The only difference I think in this game is, Lyon County really relies on their pressure defensively."

"They're a zone pressure team," Bonner continued. "They either want to turn you over or speed you up into taking a bad shot, get the rebound, and chuck it down the floor to Travis Perry. So, we're going to have to take care of the basketball, take the right shots, and then defensively just continue to do what we've been doing, which is hold everybody to that one tough one."

Bonner is thankful for another opportunity to be in the state tournament and is equally thankful for the support of the Tomcat faithful, many of whom will make the trip to Rupp Arena.

"Our community has been great all year supporting these guys," Bonner said. "We don't expect anything different this time around. I thought that, as supportive as our community was throughout the season, that ramped up a notch when we got to the region tournament. I thought that helped elevate these guys' game, especially in the region tournament. So, we definitely want to see as much maroon in Rupp Arena as purple and gold. That support is huge for us."

Ashland's game against Lyon County tips off today at 1:30 p.m. at Rupp Arena.

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