When first-year coach Elisha Justice talks, his Pikeville High School boys basketball team is all ears.
Justice, a former Mr. Basketball winner who led Shelby Valley to the state championship in 2010, will return to the Sweet 16 as Pikeville (23-8) will face fellow mountain squad Perry County Central (27-7) at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at Lexington’s Rupp Arena.
“They’re as excited as I am,” Justice said of his players. “Being from Eastern Kentucky, all our kids are UK fans. I’ve just told them there’s no reason to be nervous.
“They know I’ve been here, and that helps.”
Justice played two seasons at the University of Louisville (2010-12), earning the nickname “The Bullet” from coach Rick Pitino, before finishing his career at Pikeville College. He immediately went into coaching and served two seasons (2014-16) as the head coach at June Buchanan, posting a 32-20 record, before taking the Pikeville job.
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Justice said he’s been influenced by all of his former coaches.
At Pikeville, he is being helped by his former coach at Shelby Valley, Jason Booher, now the assistant principal and athletic director at Pikeville.
Just as most of his former coaches did, Justice stresses defense.
“That is something Coach Pitino taught me,” he said. “You’ve got to play great defense. You’ve just got to be able to defend.”
Justice has taken the lessons to heart. The Panthers have allowed just 50.1 points per game this season, second-best among the 16 teams in the field. Cooper is the only Sweet 16 team to allow fewer at 49.5 points.
As he studied the draw, Justice said he believes the Panthers have a realistic chance to get to the semifinals Saturday night.
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If they can get past Perry County Central, the Panthers could face another mountain school in the quarterfinals in Harlan County (31-3). Pikeville lost a road game to the Black Bears 67-62 on Feb. 4.
Since mid-January, Pikeville — a school with just 358 students — is on quite a roll, winning 15 of 17. The regional title is Pikeville’s first since 1999.
As he remembers Shelby Valley’s state championship win over Ballard in 2010, Justice said he knows anything is possible in the Sweet 16.