CORBIN — For much of the season, the South Laurel Cardinals and Clay County Tigers had been entrenched at the top of the 13th Region rankings, the focus of an ongoing debate about who is the best.
South Laurel left little doubt Tuesday in the 13th Region Tournament finals at the Corbin Arena, steamrolling past Clay 69-43 to earn a trip to next week’s state tournament.
The Cards’ won with a dominating defensive effort that limited Clay to 33 percent (15 of 45) shooting and star guards Trey Farmer and Blake Smith to 19 points, two days after they teamed for 40 in a semifinal win over Harlan County.
The 41 points the Tigers scored Monday marked a season low. The previous low was a 67-49 loss to South Laurel in the WYMT Mountain Classic. The next low was a 70-51 loss to the Cardinals.
“I’m just so proud of the way we played and how we defended this week. I’m just so happy for our guys. They’ve worked really hard for this,” South Laurel coach Jeff Davis said.
Junior guard Jared Grubb exploded for 27 points to lead the Cardinals as star senior center Caleb Taylor battled foul problems. Freshman guard J.J. Ramey, whose move to the starting lineup at midseason sparked a late-season surge, added 16 points. Senior forward Andrew Griffith, who played on Williamsburg’s championship team last season, added 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
“Coach Davis knew I was hot and kept telling them to get the ball to me. I forced it last game a little bit. He told me just to be patient,” said Grubb.
Clay County ended the season at 25-8 with its fifth straight trip to the 13th Region Tournament finals, but making it to a sixth straight championship will be a challenge with Farmer, Smith and Wes Wolfe graduating, along with top reserves Daniel Decker, Coty Arnold and Jacob Vaughn.
South Laurel grew accustomed to being on top in the early years of the century with six state tournament appearances from 2001 to 2008. The Cardinals won the state championship in 2005, but the current roster had not experienced that success. No one but Griffith had even played in a region tournament.
“The last three years we got beat in the district in the first round and didn’t even make a region appearance. I had never played in a region tournament until this year. I promised my dad I was going to play my heart out,” Grubb said.
South Laurel will play 2nd Region champ Christian County on March 17 at 1:30 p.m. at Rupp Arena in a first-round game.