LEXINGTON, Kentucky — It is not yet certain what Ashland coach Jason Mays has said in the pregame speech to his Tomcats prior to their state tournament matchups at Rupp Arena.
Whatever it is, don’t expect Mays to change it up prior to Saturday’s final day of action at the Sweet 16.
One day after leading by 20 in an opening-round win, Ashland took a 30-point lead to the locker room on Friday evening in cruising to an 80-44 win over Boyle County in the Kentucky Sweet 16 quarterfinals at Rupp Arena.
“That’s two games in a row where we executed our gameplan to a tee, mainly from a defensive standpoint,” Mays said.
With the win, Ashland (22-4) advances to the Sweet 16 semifinals for only the fourth time in 52 years.
The Tomcats will face Highlands in a 2 p.m. semifinal on Saturday. The winner of that semifinal advances to the 8 p.m. championship. The two teams played to open the season with Highlands earning an 84-75 win.
According to Ashland historian and former Daily Independent editor Mark Maynard, it was the largest margin of victory for the Tomcats in a Sweet 16 contest, eclipsing a 77-51 win over Louisville Seneca in 1961.
Through two games, Ashland has not trailed in the state tournament, again jumping to a big lead quickly on account of its defense and transition game.
Just how dominant was that Ashland defense? At the half, the Tomcats had more points off turnovers (22) than Boyle County had points in taking a 46-16 lead to the locker room.
“I knew we had to get stops and set some pace with our play in order for it to be an uptempo game,” Mays said. “That’s exactly what happened. I think our pressure took them out of their offense and they just never got into a flow.
While Boyle County never got going, Ashland’s offense was clicking as well as its defense, placing four players in double-figures with all reaching the mark before halftime as the Tomcats took a 46-16 lead to the break.
Ethan Sellars, who had just two points on Thursday due to foul trouble in the Knox Central win, tied for the team lead with 20 points along with Cole Villers and helped set the tone early.
Sellars scored the game’s first five points and knocked down all four of his 3-point attempts on the evening. However, he was more focused on the defensive end than his scoring load.
“I knew that if I was stepping up on defense and creating a lot of pressure then the offense was going to create for itself,” Sellars said. “I knew coming into this game I had to be a good defender.”
While Sellars and Villers continued their consistent play, the game’s biggest impact likely came from wing Zander Carter, who finished with 18 points on the evening, including seven during a 12-0 run over a 1:19 stretch of the first quarter that put the game out of reach quickly.
Carter hit six of his eight shots — including four of five from 3-point range — while adding five assists in the win.
“Zander’s just a freshman, guys,” Mays said. “It’s good to see him get some offensive rhythm going. He’s going to be a really good player for us going forward.”
The pace that Mays wanted to run at was again dictated by sophomore point guard Colin Porter, who continued to show the complete package in his game.
Porter finished with 11 points — scored consecutively to end the first half for Ashland — while dishing out six assists and also grabbing five rebounds and four steals in the win.
Mays did not mince words when discussing his point guard’s importance to the team’s success.
In a gym that the University of Kentucky calls home, Mays looked at one of the Wildcats’ past greats as a comparison.
“He is blossoming into one of the best point guards this state has seen,” Mays said. “I know it’s a bold statement, but one of the best point guards this state has seen in a long time. He reminds me of Travis Ford, just the way he plays the game. He’s got instincts with the ball, he’s got instincts defensively, he’s got instincts away from the ball, he’s got leadership.”
Boyle County (22-5) got 12 points from Luke Imfeld and nine from Luke Sheperson in the loss.
Ashland will make its 16th trip to the Sweet 16 semifinals — the last coming in 1996 when the Tomcats made the championship game before falling to Paintsville.
ASHLAND 24 22 23 11 — 80: Sellars 20, Villers 20, Carter 18, Porter 11, Gillum 4, Adkins 2, Conway 2, Ashby 2, Atkins 1
BOYLE COUNTY 8 8 10 18 — 44: Imfeld 12, Sheperson 9, Stone 5, Ziesmer 4, Hodge 2, Wilson 2, Carr 2, Gillis 2, Barnes 2, Myers 2