All 'A' Classic state preview: Rams' experience takes on 'A' new meaning

Jan. 25—Over the course of a basketball season, teams have to take the good with the bad.

Raceland's celebration after winning consecutive 16th Region All "A" Classic championships was met with weather delays and rescheduled 63rd District seeding games, arguably the most important dates on the regular season docket.

The Rams faced their adversity over the last two weeks and coach Joe Bryan felt his team showed their mental toughness while falling in the two close contests with district rivals, Russell and Greenup County.

The stretch in solidarity will serve Raceland well when it returns the small-school state stage today at Corbin Arena.

"Our team has been put through the fire as far as not being able to practice or having to vary up what we are doing," Bryan said. "We had two district games sandwiched between our region championship and state tournament. They are learning a lot and they are learning it quickly."

The Rams fell behind in their last two games but found a way to erase the deficit by the final quarter and give themselves a chance to win. Bryan hopes they can find that same perseverance if they encounter the same situation this weekend.

"As we break down film, we can find what would be a better look (on shot selection)," Bryan said. "One more pass in that situation. Also, it's what we could have done defensively. It's situational stuff and learning from every opportunity."

Raceland can lean on its senior leadership from Christian Large, Conner Sutton and Holden Topping. Junior Connor Thacker and freshman Jonah Arnett will be in the mix as well. Large (18.7 ppg), Thacker (12.7), Sutton (10.9) and Arnett (10.1) all average in double figures. Topping leads the defensive charge for the Rams.

Thacker has showed his durability this season. He recorded double-doubles in his last two games, including a 27-point outing and a career-best 18 rebounds against the Musketeers on Monday.

"Connor has had a big year for us," Bryan said. "The last few games has been really special as he's stuffed the stat sheet. The game against Greenup County was an impressive effort by him. I am proud of the way he is growing up and maturing as a person and basketball player."

The All "A" Classic state tournament had to change its venue this season due to renovations at Eastern Kentucky University's McBrayer Arena. Corbin Arena hosts the 13th Region Tournament and 5,000-seat facility will entertain the state tournament for the first time.

The 16th Region has never won the event. Rose Hill Christian remains the only finalist when it advanced to the title game in 2003. Shawn Thacker guided Somerset to three championship appearances before he took the reins at Rowan County.

Raceland knows the grand atmosphere it will face after receiving a healthy dose of it last year when they met a nine-time state champ in the opening round.

"It definitely helps that it's second time we have been there," Bryan said. "Last year, it was a shock to the system. When you get down there and you play on a college facility against a University Heights team that is the winningest team in Class A history, it was a tough draw. We are better prepared this year with our experience going down there."

"We are familiar with the area," he added. "Every coach in America has seen 'Hoosiers.' The basket is still 10 feet tall, the free throw line is 15 feet away and any other analogies you want to put out there. Having played in it last year, our kids should be ready for anything."

The field includes highly-ranked teams and schools that are also familiar with their surroundings. Defending champion and Sixth Region winner Evangel Christian (14-4) returns to the event. Pikeville (10-3) has made several trips to the state tournament. Lyon County (18-1) highlights the top half of the bracket. The Lyons (that's how the school spells it) feature the state's all-time leading scorer and Kentucky commit Travis Perry.

Raceland (10-8) meets Fourth Region winner Clinton County (10-8) today in the opening round at 5. The Bulldogs were 2021 All "A" state finalists and enter this year's tournament on a two-week layoff due to weather.

Cohen Davis leads Clinton County in scoring with 14.9 points a game. Cannon Young and Steele Burchett also boast a double-figure average with 14.2 and 12.2 points a contest, respectively. Young also pulls down 10.1 boards a night.

"They are exactly what you would want as a coach," Bryan said. "They have a really good point guard. They can score the ball as well as defend. They have a very skilled big man. He's about 6-foot-6 and a tremendous passer. ... I was really impressed with those two players."

The state tournament extends through the weekend. The championship game is slated for Sunday at 2.

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