The McCracken County boys basketball team departed Wednesday for what it hopes is a fruitful trip to Lexington in the 2021 KHSAA Sweet 16. It’s an opportunity one year in the making after the Mustangs qualified for last year’s state tournament that was ultimately canceled amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s really special,” Mustangs head coach Burlin Brower, referencing the Sweet 16 berth, told The Sun after his team finished practice on Tuesday. “As a coaching staff, we wanted to make certain that we did everything we could to give these kids the opportunity to get back there.”

The First Region champion Mustangs (22-6) drew Sixth Region champ Bullitt East (15-8) for their first-round matchup, which tips off at 1 p.m. (CDT) Thursday. Fans can follow the action through live webcasts at KHSAA.tv or listen to the game online at KHSAA.net. The game also will be carried statewide across 46 stations through the Kentucky Utilities/KHSAA Sweet 16 Radio Network.

Brower said the Chargers are a talented team despite their somewhat underwhelming record.

“Any time a team can win five postseason games in the Louisville area, they’re probably pretty good,” he said.

The Chargers are led by 6-foot-5 junior Tucker Blanford, who is averaging a double-double of 16.7 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.

“They’re not as athletic as most of the teams that come out of the Louisville area, but the Blanford kid is a handful. He’s going to cause us problems,” Brower said. “We have some guys who are going to have to really step up and do a good job on him. He’s our biggest issue, but they have some other guys that are big and physical.”

Will Blanford, a 6-foot-4 senior, and Ethan Haddaway, a 6-foot-7 junior, also bring size to the Chargers’ roster and could pose issues for a McCracken team whose tallest member of the regular rotation is 6-foot-6 junior Ian Hart. No other Mustang regular is taller than 6-foot-4.

Will Blanford (12.3 points per game) and senior Collin Powell (11.7) also join Tucker Blanford in averaging double-figure scoring for Bullitt East. The Chargers are a solid rebounding team, grabbing 33.4 per game compared to McCracken’s 25.7. But they’re not particularly adept at shooting 3-pointers (29.1%) or free throws (58.8%). The Mustangs are making 35.2% of their 3-pointers and 74.5% of their free throws and are bringing their own trio of double-figure scorers to Lexington in senior Noah Dumas (15.4 points per game), Hart (12.1) and senior Ian McCune (10.8). Junior Brant Brower is right behind with 9.8 points per game.

The Mustangs enter Thursday’s game riding a seven-game win streak, including five postseason games with an average margin of victory of 29.8 points. So it’s no surprise that Brower described his team’s confidence level as “pretty high.”

“Our kids are playing really good at the right time,” he said.

Outside of the five-point win over Murray in the region championship game, none of McCracken’s four other postseason victories came by a margin smaller than 26 points. That’s a sign of a team playing well, but Brower said the adversity of that championship game should serve his team well in Lexington.

“Even though it was a little more stressful, I really liked how we were down (in the region championship game) and had to battle some adversity. It wasn’t like we jumped out on somebody and everything was rosy from the tipoff,” the coach said. “We had to battle not playing well, and we were able to fight through that, which is always a sign of a good team. That gives us even more confidence that we can go up there (Lexington) and maybe not play well for five to seven minutes and then settle in and start playing better.”

This year marks the third time — joining the 2013-14 and 2017-18 seasons — the Mustangs have played in the Sweet 16 and fourth time they have qualified for it, as last season’s tournament was canceled. So the coaching staff has a general idea of what to expect upon arrival to Lexington and Rupp Arena.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes with this, with hotel rooms and charter buses, and Rupp Arena has a lot of rules and regulations for how you have to do things. So already having a heads up on those things really helps out a bunch,” Brower said. “It’s been a whole lot less nerve-wracking this time around.”

And while the Mustangs enter Thursday’s game with a size disadvantage, Brower said he gives his team a fair shot at advancing to Friday’s quarterfinals.

“They (Bullitt East) have some guys who are big and strong, so we’ll have to deal with that. But we put five guys out there who can handle it and shoot it and can spread the floor, so we’ll be hard for them to match up with too,” he said. “We have some bigs like Ian Hart and Ian McCune that they are going to have to step out on the arc and guard. I feel confident that whatever mismatch problems they give us we give them back.”

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