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In their third game in three days, the Washington County Commanders (2-8, 0-4) were unable to best the Taylor County Cardinals (9-3) in the second matchup of the year between the two squads.
With the Commanders only trailing by nine going into the locker room, the Cardinals ramped up their defensive pressure in the second half and would go on to win by a score of 63-37 in the fifth-place contest of the Campbellsville Holiday Classic (an eight-team tournament).
But according to WC Head Coach Russell Burkhead, the Commanders showed a vast improvement since their Dec. 2 meeting against Taylor, a 58-point drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals.
“Believe it or not, we really made strides in that game,” Burkhead said. “What we wanted to do was see how far we’ve come since our first meeting to now. It wasn’t real pretty at all, but I think we were able to show how much we’ve improved as a basketball team.”
Burkhead applauded the efforts from Jordan Bottoms, Derek Barr and Justin Shelton but was especially impressed by the play of sophomore point guard DJ Keeling.
“He played exceptional. I think he only had one turnover on the night,” Burkhead said. “That’s big for a sophomore, especially against a defense like Taylor County’s. He’s growing up right in front of us.”
Despite the loss, Burkhead hopes his team will be able to take the positives from the game and remain focused on their goal: constant improvement.
“You’ve got to tip your hat to Taylor County, but we can’t let that loss keep us down,” Burkhead said. “We’ve got to focus on just getting better and better each and every game.”
In their second-day matchup against the Campbellsville Eagles (1-9), the Commanders secured a 50-45 victory against the tournament’s host team.
Burkhead believes that the two teams were similar in philosophy—“low-scoring, grind-it-out basketball”—which led to the defensive battle between the squads.
“It was a dog fight out there,” Burkhead said. “This was by far our best defensive effort of the year, and that’s why we’re able to pull out the W.”
Senior Morgan Churchill was able to post his second double-double of the season (both of which came in the team’s only wins this season), pouring in 12 points and grabbing 11 rebounds on the evening.
“Morgan’s really been stepping up his game this year,” Burkhead said. “He does a heck of a job on the boards for us.”
Burkhead said that the win made him as “proud of this team as I’ve ever been” and the win should lead to more self-confidence down the road.
“We played a pretty tough schedule to start the year, but these kids never make any excuses,” Burkhead said. “They never give up. They just keep battling and battling, and there was just sheer emotion in the locker room after the game. It was just a big game for everybody, and I’m just proud of them. It was a total team effort.”
To kick off the tourney, the Commanders played a 6-7 East Jessamine Jaguars team that looks to push the tempo, which is exactly what they were able to do against WC, winning 97-78.
“If you put up 78 points, you’re supposed to win,” Burkhead said. “We knocked down some shots, but we weren’t able to keep up with them. We played pretty well overall, though. It was still a good ballgame for us.”
However, Burkhead believes that one of his team’s biggest weaknesses in the contest was their inability to box the Jaguars out.
“They were getting second and third shots all night,” Burkhead said. “When you’re struggling, you can’t do those types of things.”
Senior Thomas Pettus led the Commanders, with Burkhead saying that he “kept us in the game for most of the night.”
The team’s next game will be at home against Bethlehem on Jan. 10, a contest that will also serve as homecoming for WC.