MADISONVILLE – There were times it seemed like maybe this wasn’t the year for the Madisonville-North Hopkins boys’ basketball team.
Like when it lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including all five starters and Division I recruit Jaiveon Eaves, while the other District Seven teams returned most, if not all, of their starters.
Or when the Maroons lost their last two district games of the regular season – including their first loss to cross-county rival Hopkins County Central in eight years – to drop out of the district’s No. 1 spot.
Or when the team lost five of its last six regular season games to not only finish with a losing record, but the worst overall regular season record in the district.
But in the end, none of that could stop the North boys from re-claiming their spot at the top, winning their eighth straight Seventh District Championship on Friday with a 60-45 win over Dawson Springs.
“They’re all special, because they all involve hard work,” said North coach Matt Beshear, who has led the team to five of those eight district titles. “Our district this year, it was probably as deep as it’s been in 10 years. Our guys had to grind for everything, and to be able to finish it off, it’s special.”
The win had a special meaning for the Maroons’ three seniors – Noah Cunningham, Conner Cline and Dylan Ashby – who had all worked their way up the lineup the old-fashioned way, from being benchwarmers as underclassmen to role players in their junior year to starters this season that could lead their team to a victory.
“It feels like all the hard work paid off,” Ashby said. “It feels really good.”
“It’s rewarding for the coaching staff, because they’ve continued to work,” Beshear said. “Their roles changed each and every year they’ve been a part of our program, and for us to lose our entire starting lineup from last season and still be able to come out with a District Championship, I’m really proud of them.”
Cunningham led the North (15-14) offense with 13 points, while Cline and Ashby each put up 12. Ashby also had 10 rebounds for his second straight postseason double-double, quite the feat for a player whose biggest contributions are usually not recognized on the stat sheets.
“Ninety percent of the time, the team that wins the rebounding battle is going to win the game,” Ashby said. “I just went in, crashed hard and helped my team.”
Freshman Ksuan Casey also got a double-double with 10 points and 11 boards, while sophomore J.D. Gilbert added two points, five assists, five rebounds and three steals and sophomore Cade Cunningham tacked on two points, three assists and four boards.
Junior Kevin Brooks led the Panthers (17-15) with 12 points, while fellow junior Austin Clark got 11 and freshman Braxton Cotton added 10.
For the first five minutes of the contest, things played out pretty even as the two teams went back and forth and played solid defense against each other.
But the Maroons found their rhythm, finishing the quarter on a 13-2 run that gave them a 20-8 lead.
“We made some shots,” Beshear said. “We got hot, Noah had a little streak where he knocked some shots down, that was important.
“I thought Dawson had a really good game plan, their extended zone caused us some trouble and got the tempo of the game down. We struggled to get the ball inside, and that’s a credit to Coach (Wayne) Simpson and his staff and what they did, but down the stretch we made big buckets and got the ball inside.”
North kept its momentum going at the start of the second, opening on a 10-3 run that gave it a 30-11 lead. Dawson started to fight back, closing the gap to 36-19 by halftime and outscoring the Maroons by a point in each of the subsequent quarters, but by then the damage was too great.
It wasn’t the best shooting night for North, as the team only shot 38 percent from the field overall, but the defense stepped up in a big way, holding the Panthers to a 28 percent shooting performance and allowing the fewest number of points the team had allowed in almost a month.
“They’ve turned the corner in the last week or two,” Beshear said. “We had that lull there in the season where we were really struggling, and then the last few weeks, we kind of found an identity defensively.”
With the District Tournament now complete, both teams now get set for next week’s Second Region Tournament, which they both qualified for as the District Champion and Runner-Up. The tournament matchups are set to be announced on Saturday.
“It’s the first step on a journey where everybody wants to cut that net down in the Region Tournament and get to (the State Tournament at) Rupp Arena,” Beshear said. “Ultimately, that’s our goal. It’s been a while since we’ve been (to the State Tournament).
“We’re going to enjoy this one for a few days, and then we’re going to get back to work on Monday, get ready for whoever our opponent’s going to be in the Region Tournament.”