Pikeville made an impression far beyond the court at Sweet 16
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
On the Rupp Arena floor last week, there’s no question that the Pikeville Panthers made quite an impression. Pikeville advanced to the quarterfinal round of the UK Healthcare Boys’ Sweet 16.
During the Panthers’ whipping of North Laurel last Wednesday night, The Courier-Journal’s Jason Frakes tweeted out, “I don’t know, maybe the KHSAA RPI has it right on Pikeville. Good grief they’re good!”
And after Pikeville fell to eventual champion George Rogers Clark, 43-38, in the Elite Eight, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Josh Moore noted on Twitter, “Pikeville couldn’t buy a basket for most of that game and still nearly sprung the upset. Heck of an effort by the 15th Region champs. If you’re one of these people who think small schools can’t compete here and want classes, just hush. Good teams come in all sizes.”
The Panthers were at least solid at every position. They played strong fundamental basketball with a bit of flair from point guard Keian Worrix thrown in. They were entertaining and, yes, a threat to win the whole shebang after capturing the state’s All-A Classic championship.
Yes, the 2022 Panthers were good. Very good. A team doesn’t go 32-3 any other way. And they made quite an impression with their play.
But to those who saw the Panthers in person during their run to the Elite Eight, something else made an impact: Their warm-up shirts.
You read that correctly. Pikeville’s warm-up shirts made quite an impression to anyone looking at them closely.
Warmup jerseys have changed dramatically over the last 10-15 years. The old threads that bore the team name, often in a stylish font, and perhaps a logo are practically obsolete. Now, they are usually long-sleeved t-shirts with a team slogan or milestone screen-printed. Occasionally, there will be a tribute to someone who has been close to the program.
Pikeville, however, took it even farther, paying tribute to the One most important in their lives on the front of their jerseys.
Jesus. Others. Yourself.
What a testimony those three little words could make before the largest crowds to see high school basketball in Kentucky since before COVID upset almost everything two years ago.
Friday’s game against GRC was the only time I was privileged to see Pikeville play all season, but after its win over North Laurel, a friend sent some photos from that night and suggested I contact Pikeville athletic director Kristy Orem. I did just that and she graciously connected me with Panther coach Elisha Justice several hours before the Panthers would be going for a berth in the Final Four.
Justice, a former Mr. Basketball who led Shelby Valley to the state title in 2010, said the decision to put J.O.Y. came last summer and the team was on board.
“It’s how I try to live,” Justice simply said.
The Panthers reflected that joy on the court. Yes, they are fierce competitors. Yes, they sometimes might have questioned a call that went against them. They showed some of the obvious frustration when they were going 2-for-21 from 3-point range against GRC after hitting 39 percent from downtown on the season and 35 percent in the Sweet 16 opener.
But there was obvious joy when the Panthers made a big play and in playing for each other. It went seemed to go beyond the outcome in the game but was manifested in playing for each other and for the eastern Kentucky town in which they live.
As Orem posted on her Facebook account after the win over North Laurel, “Wow! What a night! This TEAM is a JOY to be around and to see the sparkle in their eyes as they walked out at Rupp was such a special night for this AD! “
It’s could be an extension of Justice’s personality. He says he started taking his walk with Jesus seriously while in high school and that walk led to quite an impression on two of his coaches.
“He was a joy to be around,” remembers former Anderson County coach Glen Drury, ironically using the same word appearing on the Pikeville warmups,
Drury served as an assistant coach for the Kentucky All-Stars when Justice wore No. 1 as the 2010 Mr. Basketball. “He loved to play and lead by example. He was really good,” Drury continued.
And it was just natural for Justice to find a way to glorify God. That was evident even when he was suiting up for Shelby Valley. His high school coach, Jason Booher, remembers that witness even on the nights of the biggest games of his career.
“I remember the night of the region finals his senior year, I got to the gym about two hours before we were supposed to be getting on the bus. I looked up and there was Elisha sitting at the top of the gym having his own personal Bible study,” remembered Booher, now the superintendent of Mercer County schools. “Then when we were getting ready to play Ballard for the state championship, we were in the locker room and he was the one who wanted to lead us in prayer.
Booher, who was serving as the Pikeville High School principal when Justice became head coach in 2016, could only smile when thinking of his former player.
He knows. Those around Pikeville basketball know.
And now, some around the state know what makes Elisha Justice and his team tick.
Jesus. Others. Yourself.