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Slow starts costs KC in Sweet 16 loss

LEXINGTON — For two teams living the Sweet Sixteen dream, one from a small town in southeastern Kentucky trip making its first trip since 1970 and another from a community on the outskirts of Cincinnati making its first appearance since 1942, the game may have been decided in the opening three minutes.

Walton-Verona, champions of the 8th Region, opened with a 12-2 run. Knox Central, champs from the 13th Region, spent the rest of the afternoon playing catch up. The Panthers could never quite accomplish that task in falling 76-54 to Walton-Verona in the opening game of the state tournament on Wednesday at Rupp Arena.

“We were a little nervous to start, and that’s to be expected,” said Knox Central coach Tony Patterson. “They made shots we didn’t think they could make consistently.”

Walton-Verona (28-6) hit shots at an impressive rate, shooting 58 percent (32 of 55) for the game as forward Kameron Pardee and 6-10 center Dieonte Miles combined to hit 19 of 25 shots for 43 points. Pardee finished with 24 points and Miles, headed for Xavier, added 19.

“Our spacing is really good right now and we’re playing our best basketball,” Walton-Verona coach Grant Brannen said. “These kids are just winners. Nothing is too big for them and it never has been.”

A 3-pointer by Trey Bonne, who finished with 14 points, started the Bearcats’ early offensive outburst. Pardee then scored on three straight trips after Jaylen Adams hit a shot for the Panthers, beginning with a tip-in, followed by a layup and a short jumper. Bonne’s steal and layup pushed the lead to 10, prompting a timeout from Patterson.

“We told them to settle down, and they did,” Patterson said. “We played pretty decent the rest of the half.”

Adams, who led the 30-5 Panthers with 19 points, had seven points late in the opening quarter as Central battled back to within seven by the end of the period.

Senior center Nick Martin, who added 17 points, scored five straight to cut the deficit to five. Martin’s basket in the final minute cut the deficit to 32-28 at the break, and he missed a chance to draw Central closer when his dunk attempt bounced off the back rim.

Martin brought the Panthers within two early in the third quarter before Walton-Verona reclaimed control, using a 19-10 run to build a 58-44 lead going into the fourth period. The Bearcats hit seven of 10 shots in the fourth quarter to spoil any comeback hopes by the Panthers.

The loss marked the end for the best Knox Central season in four decades. With four senior starters, the Panthers ended a long regional championship drought.

“It’s been a great experience,” said senior guard Dane Imel. “I’m proud of the way my team played, and I’m proud of our coaches and the community.”

“We’re a lot better team than we showed today,” Patterson said. “Their pressure bothered us because they were really long. This is a special group of seniors, and I’m super proud of them. It just wasn’t our day.”