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BATTLE LINES: East, West set for rivalry doubleheader Friday night

Friday night’s doubleheader between East and West is big not just for the bragging rights that come with beating your rival.

For the boys, it has the added importance of potentially being a competition for the top spot in a wide open 46th District.

With a win over Mercer County before Christmas break, the Colts have claimed the current top spot with a 1-0 record in district play. East started 2020 off with a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer against the Titans to fall to 0-1, adding pressure to an already high stakes game.

But in the loaded 12th Region, it’s the Jaguars who are riding high. Currently sitting at fifth in the region by overall record and RPI, East has earned big wins over Lincoln County (third in the region) and Boyle County (sixth) and comes in riding a three game winning streak after a tough pair of losses spoiled the first week of the new year.

But West sits at seventh in the region, and played Lincoln tight twice — losing by three points last Tuesday and taking them to overtime in December. The Colts also have a blowout win over the region’s current top dog, Danville.

Entering Friday, the Colts have won four of its last five games — Tuesday’s loss to Lincoln County being the only blemish. And will have had a full week off coming into East’s gym on Friday.

The girls game is a match-up between two teams with new coaches and who are struggling to find their footing in what might be the state’s top region.

Thomas Chestnut is new to the West Jess sidelines but not new to the area. He’s been an assistant coach on the Colts football team and coaches an area AAU team as well — so he’s familiar with the teams and the rivalry.

“These games are always fun. Rivalry games are always fun,” he said about the meeting. “I’ve been able to experience a few of them on the football side and they’re always great. In basketball — I know a few of those girls over on the East side. I’ve known them since they’re little. I know they’re ballers and they want this game.”

Entering Friday’s game, his team is coming off a tough stretch of losing three of the last four and having failed to string together consecutive wins all year. On Monday, the Colts had no answers for Woodford County’s ball pressure — something Chestnut says his team has struggled with all season.

Steve Bridenbaugh is new to the area and the rivalry, but not new to coaching. Before moving to Nicholasville, he was an accomplished coach in Ohio.

He inherited a team that went 10-21 last year but still advanced to the region tournament where it lost to a Lincoln County team that sent five players to college basketball. Still a young team, Bridenbaugh is quick to point out that his team is also experienced beyond their ages.

Both Bridenbaugh and Chestnut are on pace to eclipse last season’s win totals. West is only one win away from matching the six wins they earned a year ago, while East is two wins better than it was entering this match up last year.

Both East and West are entering their first meeting of the year coming off tough, but different losses. In Monday’s loss to Woodford County, the Colts were essentially out of the game heading into the half. The Yellow Jackets overpowered them a senior-laden team that effectively utilized its size and athleticism to put the game away early. On Tuesday, the Jaguars came up three points short of earning a win at Jackson County.

 

TALE OF THE TAPE

Nick Barton’s Jaguars have a potent inside-outside combination in Ben McNew and Keegan Lockhart.

McNew is currently shooting just under 50 percent from beyond the arc, and has taken almost 100 shots from downtown. His 44 3’s made average out to almost three made per game. He’s also been an effective scorer from inside the 3-point line where he also averages over 48 percent. All told, McNew is the team’s leading scorer with 17 points per game, and can score from anywhere on the floor, including shooting 70 percent from the line on 50 attempts. He’s also third on the team in rebound, averaging just over five per game.

Lockhart is the team’s leading rebounder and has continued to grow in his role on the team. The transfer from Frederick Douglass had not played high school basketball until this year. And the 6-5 senior has been a revelation for the Jaguars. Averaging 6.4 rebounds a game and 11.3 points, Lockhart provides a solid low post presence that compliments East’s talented perimeter players.

The result is a team that has improved its three point shooting by over five percentage points. Lockhart has shown an ability to step outside and knock down threes — averaging 32 percent on 37 tries — but McNew’s proficiency as well as Zion Thomas, Collin McElfresh and Braden Embry shooting well in smaller sample sizes have been leading the way with all four being over 40 percent.

But it’s not just the McNew-Lockhart combination that’s led East to its 11-5 record. Thomas, Michael Powell and Cam Thompson have all shown an ability to be the go-to guy for East and DeQuante Jackson has provided sparks for the Jaguars off the bench — and came up big on the defensive end when put into the starting line-up on short notice in the big win over Lincoln County.

That balance makes for a tough team to defend against because teams cannot key in on stopping one player.

For West, DeAjuan Stepp is the engine that makes the team go. Averaging over 21 points and seven rebounds a game, Stepp has shown he has near elite talent as a scorer, rebounders, facilitator, ballhandler and playmaker. If there is a guy to key on against the Colts, Stepp is that guy.

But it is not fair to label Damion Kelley’s team a “one man show”. Clayton Winter has been as dominant as any player in the state on the glass. Averaging a double-double with 10.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, Winter is able to clean up the glass like few can.

Since the ball dropped and started 2020, Winter has not failed to register double-digit rebounds in a game — a streak of four games that featured a 21 board performance against Lexington Christian and a 17 rebound game against Lincoln County.

West also has been able to get production from Nate Breeden (10.8 points per game) and Daniel Waters (9.5 ppg).

The pair are the Colts best three point shooters with Waters averaging 39 percent and Breeden, 35 and both have also flashed the ability to go for a double-double any night.

Overall, though, West is not a good three-point shooting team — averaging less than 30 percent per game for the year. They will look to slow the game down, limit possessions and neutralize the shooting from East to earn the win.

For East’s girls the question is what player will step up to help the star freshmen duo of Jermyra Christian and Iesha Dean. Christian accounts for 14.2 of the Jaguars average of 41.6 points per game and Dean is responsible for 11.2. Dean is also the team’s best rebounder with nine per game of the team’s 26.4.

So far the answer has been a combination of Jaila Yeast and Irma Hagins on offense and Aimee Hagins on the glass.

In a game earlier in the year — a win over Frederick Douglass — Bridenbaugh had to see how his team would respond to losing their star and primary ball handler in Christian who fouled out late in the game.

The result was East hanging on to what ended up being a tight game as the Broncos made a late surge to close the gap.

For East to be successful, other players will need to step up and help Dean and Christian.

Seniors Autumn Harrison and Aimee Hagins have shown the leadership ability that is required of the team’s only seniors — as has the team’s only junior, Hannah McLain — now it’s just a matter of seeing who will step up to be the reliable third piece.

Like East, The Colts are a team still trying to figure out how everyone is going to fit together. Aaliyah Edenstrom is the reliable go-to player — she leads the team with 9.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per game — providing a quality low post option. Her match-up with Dean will be one to watch all night as the sophomore and freshman battle it out.

West does have the triple-threat that East is currently looking for with the pair of wings Kate Reed and Alleyse Steinkuhl who have come into their own this year.

Steinkuhl is averaging 6.4 rebounds and over 6 points a game and has expanded her role to be one of the team’s primary ballhandlers. Reed, meanwhile, is the team’s second leading scorer with 8.9 points per game and Chestnut wants to see her be more aggressive on the offensive end.

 

FINAL WORD

Despite being his first time as the head coach in this rivalry, Chestnut is familiar enough with it to know how to approach the game going in.

“Beginning of the season — this is the game that’s circled on everybody’s schedule,” he said. “These games can be tricky because they bring emotions out of everyone that they don’t necessarily play with in the other games. This is a game where you know each other, you want to beat each other. It’s either going to help you or work against you.

“I’m excited about it. I can’t wait for that atmosphere and the energy,” he added. “I know the girls are excited about it as well. I’m just going to enjoy it and have fun with it. And that’s what I’m telling the girls as well. Live in the moment. Don’t wait until the end of the game to play the way you want to play. Come out high energy from the beginning and just play.”