AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” booms from the gymnasium speakers as the Lawrence County Bulldogs take the floor. Fans rise to their feet as the players begin warmups. Johnson Central is in town.
There is history here. The two schools have combined to represent the 15th region in each of the past five Sweet Sixteens. Heading into last season’s regional tournament the Johnson Central Golden Eagles looked poised to book their fifth-consecutive trip to Lexington for the state tournament. After dispatching Belfry and East Ridge in the first two rounds, they met the Lawrence County Bulldogs in the championship. Johnson Central was the returning champ, four times over. Lawrence County was seeking the first regional title in school history.
Yet as the Golden Eagles were assembling an impressive collection of regional trophies and Rupp memories (ice cream cones?), the Bulldogs were quietly building something special. For four years they had managed to keep the same starting lineup intact: Robert Dalton, Austin Chaffin, Grant Kiser, and Grant Richardson from the class of 2016, and Timmy Dalton, Robert’s younger brother, from the class of 2017. Even before they had played a game together, people around their sleepy hometown of Louisa knew the group was built for a run at greatness.
The on-court chemistry was apparent, but it ran deeper than basketball. All of the boys lived in the same neighborhood near school. When there were snow day school cancellations the herd would walk together to the gym for practice. In the off-season they would gather at Kiser’s house for pool parties. The Dalton brothers were known to team up to make music. Robert on guitar, Timmy on bass.
By tournament time of their senior season (Timmy’s junior season), all five starters had surpassed 1,000 career points. In the regional semifinal victory over Magoffin County, Robert Dalton became the school’s first member of the 2,000-point club. The win set up a meeting with Johnson Central with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line. Timmy Dalton, the lone junior starter, led the charge in the championship with 18 points. He was named the tournament MVP as Lawrence County topped Johnson Central 75-64 in front of thousands of fans. The Bulldogs were headed to state for the first time ever.
Before leaving for state the team took the regional championship trophy to every school in the Lawrence County district. There were parades and pep rallies, banners and photo requests. A group that had long been pegged as the group had taken the county to new heights. They were heroes. Despite the small population of the county, Bulldog fan turnout was among the highest of the sixteen participating schools.
Lawrence County fell to Louisville Doss in their first game in Rupp Arena. The four senior starters, and two reserves, graduated and moved on. The lone survivor was Timmy Dalton.
Though the younger Dalton was the leading scorer on the regional championship team, the rebuilding situation at Lawrence County looked bleak. He no longer had his brother or another 1,000-point scorer to throw the ball to in times of trouble. Suddenly the 6’3 forward was being asked to fill out his game.
Having played most of his underclassmen minutes in the paint, he spent the summer watching old Magic Johnson film to learn how to facilitate the offense from the point guard spot. He took over Robert’s unofficial role as team workout organizer and rededicated himself to defense. He committed early to play college ball at Salem International University in West Virginia, allowing him to focus on his senior season. If the Bulldogs were going to leapfrog the “rebuilding” moniker, the brunt of it would fall on Timmy.
“He can do whatever we need him to do,” Lawrence County coach Travis York told me leading up to this year’s regular season date with Johnson Central. “He’ll guard whoever we need him to. Whether the opponent’s best player is a point guard or a center, Timmy is going to get the assignment. If we need someone to bring the ball up the court, it’s going to be Timmy. If we need someone to post up, it’s going to be Timmy. It’s a good thing if your best player has that versatility.”
In the first five games of his senior season Timmy scored 35, 51, 33, 23, and 37 points, willing his team to a 4-1 record. During his 51-point effort, a win over East Carter, he surpassed his brother as Lawrence County’s all-time leading scorer. The Dalton brothers are now the only two members of the 2,000-point club. Robert, now playing at the University of Pikeville, was the team’s second-leading scorer a year ago. This season, it’s an eighth-grader.
“Timmy was stressed about playing with a new team at the beginning of the year but he has stepped up and now they are winning some games and actually doing well, a lot better than anyone in our community expected them to do this year,” says Michelle Canterbury, Timmy’s guardian. “He has matured so much in this past year. Having to step up and lead this new team has definitely changed his personality and his maturity level.
Tonight will be the young Bulldogs’ toughest test yet. It becomes clear from the onset that this will be battle of wills between Timmy Dalton and Johnson Central star guard Mason Blair.
There is a Johnson Central defender, and often two or three, shadowing Timmy on every Lawrence County possession. He is still able to work his way into a soft spot of the defense on nearly every possession. His tattooed right arm drops a bevy of floaters, runners and mid-range jumpers over the outstretched arms of taller Johnson Central players.
Blair gets hot for the Golden Eagles, hitting nine (!) quick three’s in the first half. Dalton is spending a lot of energy, keeping his team in the game on the offensive end and guarding Johnson Central’s seven-foot center on defense, but he has seen enough.
“I’ll take Mason, Coach,” he yells to York.
Timmy is whistled for his fourth foul early in the third quarter. York leaves him in. He has to. During the dead ball a referee lumbers over to near where I am sitting.
“The two best athletes are putting on a show, ain’t they?” He asks the man in the seat next to me.
It appears, though, that the 15th region pendulum has swung back in Johnson Central’s direction. Blair scores an incredible 50 points and the Golden Eagles get a 93-78 road win. Timmy finished with 42 points and 10 rebounds.
The Bulldogs’ early success has been a pleasant surprise, but Timmy knows this season will produce several nights like tonight, where his heroic efforts aren’t quite enough. He knows he will hear from Robert about it, for the two still speak every day. He also knows there are plenty of people who will never know the feeling of dropping 42 (or 51) points.
“It’s fun getting up shots,” he says after the game. “At first it made me uncomfortable because I felt like I was being a ball-hog, but now I know I have to do that for us to win.”
The Bulldogs are an unlikely 4-2, and Timmy Dalton has provided a welcome conduit from the past to the future.
“It’s been great to have him as the one holdover to bridge the gap from last year’s group,” says York. “Every play is run through him. Every decision is made by him. It’s a lot more pressure, but he’s done a great job of leading these young guys and showing them what it takes.”