(from The Citizen-Times, Thursday, March 19, 2015)
For 263 of the 265 girls basketball teams in the state of Kentucky, their uniforms are packed away and their basketballs stored until muggy summer days when summer ball would mark the rebirth of practice. For these teams---from the cornfields of western Kentucky to the coalfields of the mountains---March 15 was a lazy Sunday afternoon---with players hanging with family and friends or preparing for participation in softball, tennis, or track.
Such was not the case for the Allen County-Scottsville Lady Patriots. A historic basketball game was to be played. For the first time in the 41 history of Lady Patriot basketball---and the first-ever time in the history of school sports in basketball rich Allen County---a group of student-athletes were playing for a state basketball championship.
The stage was set. Three wins in three days had lifted a dedicated and determined Lady Patriot basketball team to the place the team had dreamed up---for weeks, for months, for years. Driven by their faith in the Lord, AC-S had defeated Franklin County 52-32 in the opening game of the state tournament last Thursday, survived a defensive showdown with Graves County 39-36, and outlasted Mason County 49-42 to earn a spot in the state championship game against Covington Holy Cross.
The Lady Patriots were right where they have dreamed of being. Seniors Morgan Rich, Holly Robinson, and Ashley King were doing something very few seniors ever get a chance to do---play their final high school game with a shot to finish their career with a win. The dream continued and after the first 31 minutes of game action, AC-S was, again, right where they wanted to be----in a position to win a state title.
However, two teams played basketball. Just as much as AC-S was in a position to win their first-ever state title, so was Holy Cross. The game, the season would come down to an AC-S turnover---a turnover that gave Holy Cross the ball. With 5.5 seconds remaining, Holy Cross’s Abby Hassert converted a three-point play to break a 32-32 tie. The Lady Patriots would get one more chance. Morgan Rich would fire up a shot in the final seconds---a shot that came off the backboard, glazed the front edge of the rim, before falling to the floor. The season was over. Holy Cross won the state title.
The heartbreaking lost was not the ending the Lady Patriots---or the thousands of red-clad AC-S fan base that flooded historic E.A. Diddle Arena Sunday afternoon---had envisioned. Tears flowed, heads were hung, and hearts were breaking. The loss was hard to swallow but, as the old saying goes, time will soon heal the hurt and the reality of this team’s accomplishments will out weight the hurt of a final play that just did not go the way of the Lady Patriots.
The 2014-15 team rewrote the history of the tradition-rich Lady Patriot basketball program. Just making it to the state final was historic. Seven previous trips to the state tournament ended short of the final day---twice on Friday in quarterfinal action (1979 and 2001) and five times in the first round (1976, 1977, 1985, 1999, 2000). This team finished with a school record 30 wins---the most ever by any girls of boys team in the history of Allen County-Scottsville. The team’s seniors are part of the best three-year one in program history---an 84-14 worksheet which includes a 20-0 record against Fourth Region teams this year and a 57-6 record against the region since the start of the 2012-13 season.
Individually, Rich will close of AC-S career as the all-time leading scorer. In her 154 Lady Patriot career, Rich scored 2,433 points, had 923 rebounds, 380 assists and 184 blocked shots. Her 76 points in the state tournament pushed her season total to 679---breaking her own school record for most points in a season (672) set two years ago.
Rich’s play was one of several keys to AC-S’s 52-32 win over Franklin County in opening round action on Thursday. Rich scored 28 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“My teammates knew I was hot,” Rich said. “They know that if I hit my first shot to get me the ball. Without them I wouldn’t been able to have the performance that I had.”
With the Lady Patriots leading 12-6 to start the second quarter, Rich went to work with a pair of back-to-back baskets giving her team an 18-6 lead. After a basket by Jordan Brooks, Rich finished the period with a three-pointer, a pair of free throws, and a jumper. Her play in the first half dazzled those in attendance and prompted one sports writer to tweet “if Miss Basketball voting was held right now, right here, give Morgan the mic (to accept).”
Rich play’s was a key offensively but the Lady Patriots’ defense was also a key---foreshadowing the trend for the tournament. AC-S held Franklin County to two second period points, four-of-24 shooting in the first half, and 14 turnovers in the game.
“We always find a way to get the job done defensively,” coach Bonds said. “These young ladies really stepped up defensively and locked down on a very good athletically scoring team. Defensively, we were very solid.”
Bonds was quick to note that his team’s defense was a staple against Franklin County, building upon what has been a foundation for this team this year.
“Our defense has been extremely solid all year long,” Bonds noted. “It’s not been perfect but it’s a staple that we can lean on. The way we play, rebounding the basketball also was a key that helped to jump start our game.”
The Lady Patriots defense, rebounding (a 38-25 edge for the game) and ability to make free throws in the second half enabled the team to win their first state tournament game since 2001. The Lady Patriots finished the game 16 of 39 from the floor for the game (41 percent) and 19 of 22 from the foul line (86.4 percent)---a key that would also enable the Lady Patriots to maintain their lead as the Lady Flyers mounted a charge in the second half---aided in part by several key turnovers.
“We didn’t handle the basketball well in the second half,” coach Bonds noted. “We had too many turnovers and too many rushed decisions. We kind of lost ourselves and had too many mistake at the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth. But a couple of timeouts later, we finally got into the spread offense and started making better decisions with the basketball. We finished the game so much better.”
Perhaps nerves were a factor in the turnovers---playing “under the big lights.” The stage was a factor for the Lady Flyers as was Rich, according to their coach.
“The bright lights got to us a little bit,” Franklin County Joey Thacker said. “We had a hard time with Rich. She can score in a variety of ways. They all made intermediate shots which put us behind the eight ball.”
The win moved AC-S into a Friday match-up with Graves County---a Lady Eagle team coached by the son of Kentucky’s all-time winning girls basketball coach Howard Beth. Aaron Beth’s ballclub was well prepared and gave AC-S a very tough challenge with the outcome decided by defense and free throws.
“It was a defense struggle,” coach Bonds said. “You shoot 25 percent from the field, you shoot 16.7 percent from the three point line and you win the basketball game. Defense and free throws is the only way to explain that. Our staple is our defense and to go 20-22 from the free throw line is outstanding. It’s the small details that make a huge difference. When things aren’t going right on the offensive side, you can always play defense.”
Graves County led 8-7 after the first eight minutes. AC-S would go on a 13-0 run. After Rich hit a jumper to give the Lady Patriots a 9-8 lead, sophomore RaeAnn Stafford drained a three-pointer to push the lead to four. Free throws from Sarah Sutton and Holly Robinson doubled the lead to eight by the 4:10 mark of the period. A field goal and a pair of free throws from Ashley King capped the run and lifted AC-S to a 20-8 lead. The Lady Eagles ended their seven minute scoring drought with a three-pointer and a jump to pull within seven at halftime.
The second period run helped AC-S overcome a one-for-11 shooting start in the game but it was Graves County’s defense that slowed the Lady Patriots in the second half. AC-S would be held to seven points in the third frame and 12 in the fourth quarter.
“Graves County took us out of what we wanted to do offensively,” coach bonds explained. “They forced us into some bad decisions and some rushed shots. We never got comfortable early. They went to their 1-2-2 half court trap and we really struggled with it. I’m not really sure why. You played against Bowling Green’s half-court trap you should be able to play against Graves County. They did a really good job of taking us our of our game.”
The result would be a game that came down to the final seconds---and a game decided by a defensive stop. A Sutton put back with 3:37 left in the game gave AC-S a 31-26 lead. The Lady Eagles pulled even at 33 by the 2:07 mark. Rich sank a pair of free throws enabling AC-S to regain the lead. However, a Brittany Hawkins three-point play with 1:40 left gave Graves County a 36-35 lead. Gregory drew a foul and sank two free throws with 1:28 left to put AC-S ahead 37-36.
The Lady Eagles opted to hold the ball. After a first timeout by Graves at the 40 second mark, a switch in how the Lady Patriots were playing forced the Lady Eagles into a second timeout with 28 seconds left. With less than 11 seconds remaining, Hawkins drove from the left side of the floor to the paint and launched a potential game-winning shot. Rich leaped and cleanly blocked the shot. After grabbing the loose ball, Rich was fouled. She made the free throws to increase the lead to three. Graves turned the ball over on their final possession.
“I just knew we couldn’t foul and it was kind of a risky play that I took,” Rich admitted. “I wasn’t going to take a chance of it going into overtime. Once I grabbed the ball, I knew they would foul. I just did what ever I could for my teammates.”
AC-S won despite scoring 39 points and shooting 25 percent from the floor in the game (nine of 36).
“Allen County did what they had to do to win,” Beth acknowledged. “It was a defensive battle. Our defense did what we wanted. We held them to 39 points and 25 percent shooting from the field. I would have bet a million dollars that we would win the game if you have told me those numbers before the game.”
The win moved AC-S into uncharted state tournament waters---a spot in the final four. Only one time previously in the history of high school basketball in Allen County has a team played in a game in which the winner would play for a state title. The year was 1964 when the Allen County Patriots took coach Jimmy Bazzell to the final four. The Patriots would lose the game, such would not be the case 51 years later.
The Lady Patriots win against the Lady Royals would again be keyed by defense and free throws. Again the opponents’ defense was able to contain the Lady Patriot offense---an offense that was averaging 63.4 points per game prior to the state tournament. But, in the end, the Lady Patriots ability to shut Mason County down and hit free throws in the second half proved to be the deciding factor.
The Lady Patriots led 10-9 after the first quarter but trailed by as many as 10 points in the second half. The Lady Royals were able to build their lead based by connecting on four three pointers. However, a late charge---highlighted by Morgan Rich’s jumper right before halftime
Bonds noted that getting back in the game late in the second quarter was a key to the second half.
“With about two-and-a-half minutes, during a time out we talked about getting it to three or four points going into half,” Bonds recalled. “That was manageable. We had got down to six but Morgan hitting that shot gave us a little momentum. When we got in the locker room, there was no panic. We made the adjustments defensively and Morgan stepped us and said we are not going to lose this basketball game.”
Bonds also noted that the team opened the second half determined to take the ball to the Lady Royals.
“We could have very easy stopped playing to be hones,” coach Bonds said. “We could have allowed them to continue to get physical and we could have backed down. But that’s not what this team is made of. Mason County is a great basketball team. They are coached to be physical. But, in the second half, we got physical too.”
AC-S outscored the Lady Royals 13-3 in the third period to turn a six point halftime deficit into a 34-30 lead going to the fourth. AC-S outscored Mason County 15-12 in the final eight minutes to seal the win.
“We took our defense to yet another level,” Bonds said. “We got after it on defense. This goes back to every single practice our kids willing to battle on defense. We always find a way to battle. We stepped up and hit free throws at the end. I am so proud of them for making plays.”
The plays were needed as the scrappy Lady Royals refuse to go away. Down 36-30 with seven minutes left, a pair of three-pointers tied the game at 36 with 4:12 remaining. Rich hit two free throws to give AC-S a lead but Maddie Boone’s bucket with 2:21 left knotted the game at 38. Jordan Brook’s would hit one of two free throws as AC-S regain the lead 2:01 on the clock. Mason’s missed a shot to take the lead at the 1:45 mark with King grabbing the biggest rebound of her career and drawing a foul. King swished the nets at the AC-S end of the court as the Lady Patriots took a 41-38 lead.
Moments later, Holly Robinson’s steal on a great anticipation play was followed with a drive to the basket. Robinson made the lay-in, drove the foul, and sank the free throw as AC-S took a 43-38 lead. Mason pulled to within three before Brooks coolly canned two free throws at the 57 second mark. A free throw by brooks, Gregory, and a final pair from Robinson punched the ticket to a championship game appearance.
The Lady Patriots finished the game shooting 35.9 percent from the field and 20 of 28 from the foul line---all in the second half.
“We talk about every game getting to the free throw line 24 times,” Bonds said. “That is one of our keys.”
The win moved AC-S a step closer to a state championship.
“It’s awesome to go to the finals,” Gregory said afterwards. “It’s what we have worked for all year. Out ultimate goal was to get here. Praise Jesus.”
Rich echoed her team mates’s excitement.
“This is our goal we have been pushing for,” Rich added. “It’s finally here.”
Bonds quickly noted after the Mason County game that Holy Cross would be a different team than the one that defeated the Lady Patriots 61-54 in December---different in that the December win came without a key player. Still, Bonds predicted his team would be ready.
“We will give it everything we have,” Bonds said. “We have talked about winning a state title for a long time.”
“The crowd is our motivation,” Gregory said. “This community has gotten together and supported u. They pick us up when we are down. They are behind us no matter what and that means a lot to us.”
Sunday afternoon, AC-S left everything on the court but came up a little short against a very talented Holy Cross team---a team that had two days earlier did what many said could not be done. The Indians---ranked fourth in the state by the Litkenhous Ratings coming in---used a buzzer-beater to upset nationally ranked Elizabethtown in the quarterfinals. Saturday, the Lady Indians got past a Male team that had upset the state’s number two team, Henderson County.
With 5,335 fans in the seats---mostly wearing red in support of AC-S---the Lady Patriots enjoyed the pregame activities. Administrators and support staff from both teams were introduced as well as players and starters. The ceremony set the stage for would be a classic heavyweight fight type defensive battle.
Bonds and the AC-S coaches elected to go with a deliberate, slow the pace game plan. Knowing that the Lady Indians would play a very tough zone defense and that the team was quick on the perimeter and long inside, AC-S internationally elected to play ball-control---yet look to attack at any given breach in the Holy Cross defense.
“We knew going in that the game plan that would give us the greatest opportunity to win would be a very deliberate style,” coach Bonds said. “We were very comfortable playing that way. The issue became that every possession was valuable because we knew that we would not have as many possessions throughout the game. We executed on both ends extremely well. We were to grab the basketball off the rim, up the tempo for a lay-up only. If we did not get the lay-up we were gonna to come back into our spread, some some time, and looks for some sets.”
The plan worked to perfection most of the way. The teams were tied at nine after the first and 18 at halftime. The teams combined to take 31 shots in the first half with AC-S shooting an even 50 percent (seven of 14). The Lady Patriots were perfect from the line (three for free) while Holy Cross had yet to shoot a free throw.
An 8-2 run by the Lady Indians to start the third quarter lifted the Ninth Region champions to a 26-20 lead by the 3:36 mark. Rich countered with a free throw and then brought AC-S back into the game with a clutch three-pointer with 3:31 left in the third.
“Holy Cross is not a team that you can fall behind by more than six points to,” coach Bonds said. “We were very close to having to do something different.”
The Lady Indians led 27-24 starting the fourth period and stretched their lead to five. AC-S answered as Rich hit another three to pull her team to within a basket with 6:41 left. An offensive foul call on Holy Cross---one of three in the final period---gave AC-S the ball. Rich stepped up once again, nailing a three at 3:11 to lift AC-S to a 30-29 lead. The Lady Indians reclaimed the lead. Rich would be fouled on a three-point try which led to her making two of the three free throws. With 2:32 left, AC-S led 32-31.
Holy Cross’s Aly Mayhous sank one of two free throws to tie the game at 32 with 1:09 remaining. Rich fired an off-balanced jumper from the foul line that missed but a hustling Sutton grabbed her fourth rebound of the game and drew a foul. Sutton’s free throw missed but a Mayhous miss at the 1:09 mark was grabbed by Gregory---giving AC-S the ball with a chance to win state on the final shot.
However the quick hands of tournament MVP Deji Turner knocked the ball away from Rich as she dribbled near midcourt. The Lady Indians gained control and worked for the last shot. With 5.5 seconds left, Abby Hassert took a pass in the lane, spun to her left, and laid the ball off the glass for the go-ahead score. Fouled on the play, Hassert made it a three point game on the free throw.
On their last possession, Gregory go the ball to Rich who had a great look just across midcourt. Her shot glanced off the backboard and off the edge of the goal---ending the Lady Patriots dreams.
“At the end of the day, we were right where we wanted to be with a minute to go in the game,” Bonds recalled. “Defensively, our girls did what they were asked to do. Offensively, we missed a few shots that we needed to make. Yet, I’m very proud of the girls for sticking with the game plan to give themselves a chance.”
Rich finished with 20 points to lead AC-S. The senior was seven of 14 from the floor and three of five from the foul line and three point line. The Lady Patriots shot 36.7 percent from the floor (11-30) and 54.5 percent at the line (six of 11)---a stat that represented their poorest free throw shooting night since the Monroe County game in early January.
As the dust settles from a hectic four days, Bonds notes that his team being in a position to win it all is a simple reflection of the dedication, determination, and faith of his team.
“We knew we had the potential to be a state contender,” Bonds added. “We have played a schedule the last couple of years that has been very challenging. We have tough competition in our district and region the last couple of years. Our kids were ready to complete at that level. In the tournament, we had to play a lot of different styles against some very good teams. That proved to me and to our community that we deserved to be where we were at. Yes, it’s a disappoint loss because we were right there. But what these girls have done for this program, this school, and this community will forever be a true blessing and it will never go unnoticed.”
The historic season will officially conclude in a few weeks as the team will celebrate with their annual banquet.