By Les Dixon
BARBOURVILLE — Brian Evans’ Knox Central Panthers struggled to put any type of consistency together throughout the regular season, leaving doubts in many 13th Region fans’ minds they would make a run once postseason play began. A season-worst 16-point loss to North Laurel during Knox Central’s regular season finale didn’t make things much better.
But the Panthers erased those doubts Tuesday during semifinal action of the 51st District Tournament by turning in one of their best performances of the season by defeating Pineville, 78-69.
Knox Central (16-13) didn’t trail the entire game against the Mountain Lions (18-11), thanks in part to its best shooting effort of the year — a 26-of-41 shooting effort (63 percent), including going seven-of-10 from three-point range.
Just how good of a shooting night did Evans’ squad have?
During the last three quarters, the Panthers connected on 23-of-32 attempts from the floor (71.8 percent), including a five-of-six effort from beyond the three-point arc.
“This is one of the best games we’ve played in a while,” Evans said. “No doubt, it was huge to win this first game. Pineville is a very good team and they have a lot of seniors and we knew we’d get a tough game from them.
“I thought we had good balance in scoring tonight and I thought we received a great team effort,” he added. “I’m really happy with the way things went. This was one of the better games we’ve been playing since December that’s when we were hit by the injury bug.”
Knox Central established the inside game of Tobie Merida and Chad Marsee during the first half to build a 33-22 edge at halftime.
The Panthers led 12-10 after the first quarter, but Merida caught fire by scoring 10 of his 14 points in the second quarter, as the Panthers outscored Pineville 21-12 on nine-of-12 shooting during the period.
“I thought we did a good job of finding Tobie during the quarter and Chad did a great job on the boards,” Evans said.
After taking control of the game thanks to its inside play in the first half, Knox Central’s guard play dictated the pace of the game during the second half.
Three consecutive three-pointers by Jeffrey Adams combined with two more baskets by Merida allowed the Panthers’ lead to grow to 48-32 with 1:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Knox Central held a 16-point edge (58-42) with 6:08 remaining in regulation, but Barger left the game with an injury for three minutes and Pineville took advantage by cutting its deficit to eight points (66-58) with two minutes remaining.
The Mountain Lions were forced to foul down the stretch and the Panthers made them pay and wrapped up the nine-point win by hitting 17-of-26 free throw attempts for the game.
Barger led all scorers with 23 points and three three-pointers while Adams added 22 points and four three pointers.
“This has been a year that this team has had to persevere,” Evans said. “I’m really happy we are able to advance to the regional tournament next week. We’ve had Matt, Nate (Cole) and then Chad out due to injuries and it just takes some time.”
Knox Central, who will be looking to capture its sixth straight district title, will now play Barbourville (19-10) in the 51st District title game Thursday at 7 p.m.
The Tigers won the only meeting between the two schools this season in overtime, 44-42.
51st District Tournament
at Barbourville High School
Knox Central 78, Pineville 69
Knox Central 12 21 17 28 78
Pineville 10 12 16 31 69
Knox Central (78) — Adams 22, Barger 23, Hensley 2, Marsee 8, Wilburn 2, Cole 7, Merida 14.
Pineville (69) — Philpot 3, Collett 12, Jeffrey 18, Ford 4, Asher 11, Skinner 1, Simpson 20.