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SHELBYVILLE – If the Anderson County girls' basketball team wants bigger and better hardware for the trophy case, the Lady Bearcats might do well by purchasing packages – no, make that cases – of chewing gum.
A few minutes before the tip off of the 30th District championship game, Anderson County senior Eriel McKee moseyed over to the scorer's table where she got a stick of Fruit Stripe from scorekeeper Larry Briscoe.
About 90 minutes, 33 points and 11 rebounds from McKee later, Anderson had claimed its sixth consecutive district title with a 57-35 whipping of Shelby County.
Both teams advanced to the Eighth Region Tournament at Grant County.
And the Lady Bearcats, one of the deadliest shooting teams in Kentucky, did it while hitting only 36 percent of their shots. The 3-point shot that has been such a staple of the Anderson attack over that six-year span fell less than 21 percent of the time.
Yet, the Lady Bearcats marched on with a 22-point win. Shelby had no answers for McKee or Anderson's stout defense.
“It was just one piece,” McKee grinned when asked about the Briscoe fuel.
It was potent as McKee scored all 14 of Anderson's first quarter points, then built on that with steals, slashing drives, put backs and a pair of 3-pointers for good measure.
While the scoreboard did not indicate a quick coronation, Anderson's continued dominance was apparent from the outset.
“It means a lot to me that as a team we have accomplished this,” said McKee, who has signed with Morehead State.
And those teammates were thankful McKee was having a superb night when little else was going right for the Lady Bearcats.
“She can do that about anytime she wants,” said senior Alex Avritt, who joined McKee on the all-tournament team. “She has the ability to do that.”
Anderson coach Tony Kays admitted it can be easy to sit back and just watch McKee work her magic. “I think we are spoiled as a coaching staff,” Kays chuckled. “We almost expect that every night. Overall, Eriel played well, but I don't think it was her best game, but obviously, she had a huge game tonight. She was the difference-maker tonight.”
That is kind of like saying the sun rises in the east. It is the understatement of the obvious.
With her teammates' shooting woes apparent from the outset, McKee took over. After Shelby have jumped to a surprising 9-4 lead, McKee drilled a 3-ball, sank two free throws, scored off an assist from Makenzie Cann, then nailed a pull-up jumper to put Anderson up 14-11 at the first quarter break.
When Destiny Stewart scored after another assist from Cann, Shelby was never within a basket again. The final margin was Anderson's longest lead of the night.
The Lady Bearcats never heated up. Shots that have been going down for six year rattled the rim before popping out. Shots that normally roll in fell off the hoop. It was just one of those nights when one could have sworn that Shelby had installed an invisible fence on Anderson's basket.
Yet, the Lady Bearcats were still dominant. They forced 26 turnovers while committing only six. Shelby, easily the biggest team in the Eighth Region, out-boarded the Lady Bearcats only 35-32. Anderson drew several over-the-back calls with fundamental boxing out.
“It was frustrating,” Cann said of the subpar shooting, “but it is good to know that we can shoot that way and still win by 22 points.”
Part of that was undoubtedly Anderson's athletic superiority as both Cann (Cincinnati) and McKee have signed with Division I schools. But part of that margin was Anderson's attention to detail in other areas.
“Tonight was one of those nights,” said senior guard Destiny Stewart, another all-tournament team member. “We worked through it.”
Stewart scored nine points, including a big 3-pointer that seemed to briefly deflate Shelby in the third quarter.
“We were not having a good shooting night at all,” Avritt added, “but we played hard and fought through it.”
Shelby was able to hang relatively close, drawing within 37-29 when Katie Hudgens drilled a three from the left side at the 1:46 mark of the third quarter.
McKee – who else? – answered with a pair of baskets to end any hope Shelby might have had at one of those upsets that turns post-season basketball into March Madness. Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Anderson had built the lead back to 48-30 and the obviously gassed Shelby was done.
“We picked up the defensive pressure in the second half,” Kays said. “We tried to in the first half, but we got out of position a few times.
“We had worked on rebounding a lot in practice. I thought our help defense was good. We drew three charges and should have had a fourth. When you have kids willing to step over and take the charge, it is good you have kids willing to do that.”
While misfiring was uncharacteristic, Anderson's ability to still win impressively was not. For the last two years, the Lady Bearcats have found was to still prevail even when some things were not going right. Six straight district titles are a testament to Anderson's resolve.
“I think it is pretty cool,” Stewart said of the crowns. “The big thing is I am proud of my team.”
That team has its eyes on a second straight Eighth Region title, then winning the biggest trophy at the state tournament the following week.
They will probably take along a supply of Fruit Stripe just in case.
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