Elliott County four wins from history

Editor's note: Elliott County advanced to the Kentucky state high school semifinals before losing to Holmes of Coventry, Ky., 75-65.

The school buses rolled in from across the county Tuesday -- from Isonville Elementary School, and Lakeside as well. The kids from Sandy Hook Elementary walked over from next door.

Every school kid in the county converged at the high school for the pep rally to celebrate the Elliott County Lions, on their way to Rupp Arena in Lexington for the Kentucky state basketball tournament.

"We rallied for about two hours," guard Evan Faulkner said. "It was pretty nice."

Adults were welcome, too. The entire community was invited to the gym to send off the Lions in their pursuit of a "Hoosiers"-style achievement.

Despite an enrollment of only 325 in grades nine through 12, Elliott County (30-2) is one of the favorites to win the single-class, all-comers state tournament. The Lions' story has captured the attention of basketball fans around the globe, among them "Hoosiers" screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, an Indiana resident.

Despite coming from the state's remote 16th Region, which has not produced a state champion since 1961, the high-scoring Lions are the top-ranked remaining team in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal power rankings. They lead the field of 16 that converged on Rupp beginning Wednesday for a four-day festival of basketball.

There are two days of quadrupleheaders, Wednesday and Thursday. Elliott County caps off the opening round in the final game at 8 p.m. Thursday against Anderson County (24-5), which has an enrollment of 1,233. (Update: Elliott County beat Anderson County 74-61 in the Round of 16, then beat Shelby Valley 75-69 in the quarterfinals).

The Lions had never made the state tournament until this group of players came of age in one of the poorest counties in Kentucky. In 2008, the Lions were beaten in the first round by eventual champion Mason County in a down-to-the-wire game. In 2007, with an all-sophomore starting lineup, they lost in the quarterfinals.

Now, it's the last chance for this group of seniors and their coach, Rick Mays, who will retire when the run is over.

"Anything less than winning the state title will be a disappointment," said Faulkner, who along with twin brother Ethan Faulkner forms the go-go backcourt that pushes the pace for Mays. "We know what we're going down there to try and do."

The Lions won five straight district and region games to advance to this Sweet 16. The first game was their toughest; they survived an upset bid by East Carter to win by five points. After that, the road to Rupp got easier, with four straight lopsided victories.

Elliott County brings a bloated bandwagon to Rupp, as word has spread throughout the season of the Lions' story. But the rest of the state will concede them nothing.

If Elliott County wins its first game, it will face a difficult quarterfinal in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's blind draw. The opponent would be either Shelby Valley (30-4), another small (593 students) Appalachian school that handed the Lions their only in-state defeat. Or the opponent could be the defending champion from Mason County, which Elliott County defeated by 15 points late in the season.

The other major forces on Elliott's side of the draw are Covington Holmes (32-2, enrollment 1,000) from the greater Cincinnati area and Lexington Catholic (25-7, enrollment 865). Lexington Catholic upset the school many considered the favorite to win it all, Scott County, in Region 11 play. Elliott County could face either of those teams in a Saturday morning semifinal.

And if the Lions run the gauntlet to the state title game Saturday night, their opponent could be Louisville Eastern (30-2, enrollment 1,976). That's the school Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo attended before transferring to Oak Hill, and it was the strongest team in the state's biggest city this season.

It will be a difficult road for the Lions, who won't have the most size or depth but should have the most crowd support. If they win it all, it will be talked about in Kentucky for the rest of the players' lives -- and perhaps beyond.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.