Battle-tested Red Devils, Carbon looking to grab first state tournament win since 2014-15 season

March 15, 2023 | 12:05 am

Updated March 15, 2023 | 12:19 pm

Photo by Gage Johnson

Finding themselves back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2018-19 season and a state record 45th time, senior Kenyatta Carbon and a fiery Owensboro team is looking for their first state tournament win in eight years at Rupp Arena on Wednesday—looking to get the best of Ashland Blazer this time around.

Coming into the state tournament the Red Devils are playing their best basketball of the year, recently grabbing a 9th District and then a 3rd Region Championship for the first time since 2018-19. But Owensboro has faced a lot of ups and downs to get to this point, as players came and left the team along with some injuries to multiple players that kept them from seeing their complete team together for the first half of the season.

The Red Devils were still trying to figure things out late in the season as well, even coming into the postseason having lost three straight to Bowling Green, Owensboro Catholic and Ohio County to sit at 14-10 overall. Owensboro has been hot since though, winning five straight and finding themselves back in the Sweet 16 now owning a 19-10 record. 

Head Coach Rod Drake said the 68-48 loss to the Aces really hit home with the team, as some alumni came in and helped the team realize that the Red Devils program means a lot to more than just the players and coaches in the locker room.

“We had some of our former players come in,” Drake said. “Coaches didn’t say a word. They did all the talking. We just let our kids know that this program means a lot more than just the guys putting the uniform on. It’s a community program. This program’s been around a long time and it’ll be around a long time after I’m gone. After our kids saw what and who they were playing for, I think the light came on for us and they started taking it a little more seriously.”

Drake said that he felt things were finally coming together with nearly everyone healthy and gelling during practice, it just finally started showing in the games once the district tournament rolled around.

“You can take a loss and sulk over it and say what could’ve happened,” Drake said. “We definitely learned from that little skid we went through and got better. We found some more guys off the team that could contribute… We got better with practice. Once our guys found out what the purpose of practice was, I think the light came on and we started seeing some better play.”

But before the district tournament the Red Devils were faced with another challenge, which was dealing with the passing of Tramel Barksdale on Feb. 17—a former Owensboro star on the gridiron and close friend to many on the team. Barksdale has weighed heavily on the minds of many throughout the community alongside Owensboro High School, but Drake made sure to give credit to Owensboro Public Schools, stating that they have helped the students tremendously in trying to deal with the tragic loss of a friend.

“It’s something in life that you just have to deal with,” Drake said. “There’s no recipe or remedy for that situation. But hats off to our OPS, our therapists. The administration here did a great job with that and there’s no such thing as smooth-sailing [in this situation], but I think everything went kind of smooth. There weren’t any distractions or anything and everybody did the respectful thing.”

Standout senior guard Kenyatta Carbon was close with Barksdale, with Kenyatta even getting advice on what he needed to improve on coming into the season from him. Carbon also said that he was always trying to hype the team up, never missing a game to be there for his friends.

“He meant a lot to us,” Carbon said. “Especially to us younger guys. Every game he always gave us a little speech or something. He always said something to us before the game. He was always there and was always supportive.”

The team has worn shirts donning Barkdale’s No. 6 that he wore during his football career before games, starting in the opening round of the district tournament. It was there that Carbon was instrumental in helping the Red Devils grab a 9th District Championship, putting up 22 points in the first round against Daviess County and 28 in the championship game against Owensboro Catholic.

The senior guard has been dominant all season long, averaging 22.1 ppg and 7.4 rpg, while having an eight-game stretch of 20-plus early in the season and eclipsing the 30-point mark numerous times. Most recently he led the way with 31 points in the 3rd Region Championship, making him 75 points short of becoming Owensboro’s all-time leading scorer. 

And while Kenyatta is more than happy to be amongst some notable company in Red Devils history, he said after the 3rd Region Championship that not being the only one on the list to not make a state appearance was something that he couldn’t let happen. Carbon has gone a little under the radar when it comes to being looked at for the next level, so Drake is looking forward to seeing him turn some heads at Rupp Arena.

“I’m really excited to be able to go to the state tournament just for him,” Drake said. “Just to let the rest of the state see him. He’s a one-man show and as he goes we go.”

Kenyatta is all business though, saying that his approach to the game won’t change at Rupp Arena and is ready to leave it all out on the floor.

“I’m just excited to be here just like everybody else,” Carbon said. “I just try to play hard, play every game like it’s my last. It really is now.”

He’s gotten plenty of help along the way though, starting with former Owensboro Catholic big in senior Ji Webb joining the team late in the season and giving the Red Devils a big presence in the paint by altering shots and controlling the glass night in and night out. Webb has only made a strong defense even stronger, as Owensboro’s guards such as senior on-ball defensive menace Cayman Powell and others have benefited from the help in their chaotic fullcourt press.

“Obviously with Ji in the back, I told you guys earlier this year we can do a lot of things out front,” Drake said. “Guys feel comfortable when you’ve got the big wall behind you. Our guards out front they gamble and they put pressure on you [because of it].”

Kenyatta shared the same notion, stating that Webb’s presence has been a perfect addition that has erased a lot of easy opportunities for teams in the paint as the season has progressed.

“It’s helped tremendously for real,” Carbon said. “We needed that. Just some size. He can be a body down there and notice when people are trying to slash or anything.”

Owensboro has also seen better marksmanship from three late in the season, with senior guard Talas Taylor, freshman guard Jonathan Moss and sophomore Dayshaun Sanders adding nice scoring sparks throughout the postseason so far. The Red Devils will need contributions from each and every player as well, as they’ll have their hands full with the Ashland Blazers—the same team that beat them 58-50 in the Sweet 16 in 2018-19—at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday.

After falling in the 64th District Championship the Tomcats bounced back to win a 16th Region Championship, currently riding a three-game winning streak. Owensboro knows it won’t be a cake walk by any means in the first round of the state tournament, but Drake hopes that the plethora of difficult opponents they’ve faced this season will pay off at Rupp Arena.

“We play a tough schedule,” Drake said. “We play a lot of southern Indiana schools… We played some quality opponents as you can see. We’ll travel and play. Fortunately it worked out for us. You can get better with those games, but obviously if you don’t make it to the state tournament those games just look like blowout games for you. So we learned, we grew from it and that’s why we’re here.”

The Red Devils will be fresh as well, as they’ve been off since March 7, which has given them time to rest and prepare without overdoing it in practice.

“Right now it’s all about maintenance for us,” Drake said. “We want to go into Wednesday night healthy. [We’re going to] just go and review a few things and go over some things. Being a former player, [I know] a lot of times you can get to this point of the season and I know coaches can go nuts and start wanting to practice for two hours to show the kids what they know. So right now it’s just maintenance, getting our legs up under us and just enjoying the ride right now.”

All in all Drake is thrilled for the state tournament, happy to be a part of a field that has an abundance of talent and hoping that they can make some noise starting with the Sweet 16 matchup on Wednesday.

“You’ve got two prolific players with Sheppard and Perry coming,” Drake said. “Then you’ve got a story with GRC with a possibility of winning back-to-back titles. You’ve got Warren Central who’s on a 23-game winning streak. We played them earlier in the year and we’ve also played McCracken County. Just getting back to some normalcy of life right now, I think this state tournament—everybody’s looking forward to this.”

March 15, 2023 | 12:05 am

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