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As January starts to fade into the February stretch run, each district game gets just a little bit more important than the last, as teams do their jockeying for the best tourney seed possible.
That means sometimes players will do just a little bit more, dig just a little bit deeper to lay it all out and get the win.
Like A.J. Youngman, who lost eight pounds over the weekend thanks to a stomach bug that kept him bed-ridden. The freshman showed little of the effects of it Monday night, however, scoring the first seven points of the game on the way to a 33-point outburst to lift his Thomas Nelson team to a 65-56 win at Nelson County.
“He came to school not feeling real well (Monday) knowing that this was a big district game we had to have,” said his father, Generals’ coach Jim Youngman.
The win helped the Generals assume control of the No. 2 seed in the 19th District race, improving to 9-6 overall and 3-2 in district play, while the Cardinals fell to 6-11 and 3-3.
“It’s huge,” A.J. Youngman said. “That’s our biggest rival. It’s great to get a rivalry win.”
Youngman came up with the goods from the opening tipoff, getting a three and two more buckets to get his team off to a 7-0 start over the first two minutes. By the time the dust settled in the first quarter, the Generals had staked a 23-13 lead, 13 by Youngman coming from a variety of spots on the floor.
The freshman credited his team for doing a good job of spacing the floor, which gave him more room to operate. A number of his buckets came by way of teammates’ assists.
“They’re hard to defend,” Nelson coach William “Bev” Hart said.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals weren’t really playing all that poorly on offense, and eventually were able to slow the Generals down on the defensive end.
Zech Maulden hit three three-pointers in the first quarter to keep his team within striking distance, and the Cardinals started to catch fire to open the second. Drew Martin got fouled on a short jumper and hit the free throw, then Tyler Reynolds hit a corner three to pull Nelson County to within 23-19.
Youngman scored with 5:17 to go before halftime, making it 25-19, but from there the Cardinals took over, using an 8-2 spurt to tie it up at 27-27 on a Logan Calbert three with 2:15 before the break. A pair of Youngman free throws gave his team a 31-29 halftime lead.
Hart said his team has done a lot better job of finding shots within the flow of the offense in recent weeks, and avoiding the freelancing that leads to bad shots. It seemed to pay off against the Generals in spots, as four Cardinal players scored in double figures, and the team looked confident in hitting eight threes on the game — five in the first half.
“Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come,” Hart said.
Back-to-back buckets by Aquarius Watkins gave the Cardinals a 37-34 lead two minutes into the second half, and Reynolds scored in the low post at the 4:36 mark to answer a Kevin Ndahiro dunk, making it 39-36.
“Their ball movement was excellent,” A.J. Youngman said of the Cardinals.
Nelson County couldn’t maintain that high point, however, as Youngman had three free throws and a bucket in the low post after a Stephen Price steal, putting his team back up for good at 41-39 with 4:27 left in the third quarter.
The teams traded scores back and forth for the next three minutes, with the Cardinals hanging around down two with 1:28 left in the third after a Dylan Moran three cut it to 50-48.
From there, however, Nelson County’s shooting resembled the frigid January temperatures as the Cardinals managed just three field goals over the final 9:28, and Calbert’s three off an inbounds pass with 3:29 left to trim it to 58-56 was their final bucket of the game.
“We finally buckled down on defense,” A.J. Youngman said.
Hart said his team has displayed an unfortunate tendency to commit some unforced errors at inopportune times, and that happened again Monday with some costly turnovers down the stretch.
“Our offense is coming around, but we can’t turn the ball over,” he said.
Maulden’s 14 led the way for Nelson, while Watkins (12), Reynolds (11) and Calbert (10) also got in double digits.
Cameron Morgeson had 12 for the Generals, while Austin Willett pitched in 10.
Thomas Nelson was in action Tuesday after press time against Meade County, and will visit Fort Knox on Thursday. Nelson County took on Hart County after press time Tuesday, and will host Marion County Friday.