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GOSHEN – With only 90 seconds left in the journey, it looked like Anderson County was still 10 miles from Diddle.
“Things weren't looking good,” Lady Bearcat coach Tony Kays smiled.
But somehow, the Lady Bearcats found a way to get to Bowling Green. Let's just hope their trip down the Blue Grass Parkway and I-65 is not as eventful this week.
Anderson rallied from a 61-51 deficit to force overtime. The Lady Bearcats scored 10 points in 40 seconds.
Read that again: Ten points. Forty seconds.
They then prevailed in the extra period when Eriel McKee sank a jump shot in the lane with 16 seconds remaining in overtime, sending the Lady Bearcats past a great Simon Kenton team, 70-68, in the Eighth Region championship game at North Oldham High School.
The Lady Bearcats will be making their second Sweet 16 trip in four years and only the fourth in school history. They will play Second Region champion Henderson County, ranked No. 3 in the state by some polls, on Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Diddle Arena on the campus of Western Kentucky University.
The Lady Bearcats have reached their destination.
They made it with one that will be one for the ages in Anderson County hoops lore.
Despite being on the wrong end of the score since the second quarter, Kays kept reminding his team the game is 32 minutes long. The Lady Bearcats actually needed 36 to complete the trip, but who's counting?
“He told us to not give up and to keep believing,” McKee said of Kays' words. “He said the game wasn't over yet.”
“It was the same thing as in the first quarter, the second quarter and the third quarter,” Kays said. “I said to keep playing hard and we can get a flurry?”
Flurry? After Simon Kenton took a 61-51 lead with 1:30 to go, it looked like the Lady Bearcats would need an avalanche. They got it in the form of a relentless press that finally took its toll on an obviously fatigued Simon Kenton and the Pioneers' inability to hit free throws in the final 90 seconds.
“I wasn't feeling good at all,” Simon Kenton coach Jeff Stowers said. “I have always told my girls to play all the way down to the last minute. We know that from playing Anderson over the years, they are going to keep after you. We had a couple of incidents where we didn't play through.
“I think Anderson might have wanted it just a little more than we did.”
McKee, who led all scorers with 24 points, scored eight of them in the final 1:30. Twice she stole the ball and converted. She was scoreless in the extra period until she got the ball near the free throw lane, then drove into traffic, but rose above the Simon Kenton defense. The eventual game-winner was true.
“I felt good,” Kays said of his thoughts when McKee rose, practically uncontested, for the game-winner. “That is her shot right there in the lane. She had struggled some early but she started feeling better about herself and more confident. She wanted the ball.”
Simon Kenton had one final chance, but like Anderson, had exhausted its timeouts. Junior guard Abby Owings hurried to get a shot off but it was well off the mark with four seconds to play. In the mad scramble that ensued, Anderson's Kali Whiteside and Destiny Stewart kept the ball alive and Simon Kenton was unable to corral the loose ball for another shot.
“I thought it was going in,” McKee said of Owings' shot.
“I couldn't tell,” added Anderson's Makenzie Cann, who finished with 17 points and came up with a crucial steal and a big 3-pointer in overtime.
As the ball bounded away from the goal and the horn sounded, Anderson players, coaches and fans flooded the floor in a wild celebration that signified the destination – Diddle Arena – had been reached.
Whiteside, named the tournament's Most Valuable Player, had gone to war through the entire contest. She finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds. “Kali carried us throughout the game,” Kays said. “She kept us close in the first quarter, second quarter. She was tremendous. Her defense, her rebounding. She wants the ball around the basket now.”
“I was ready to go,” Whiteside said. “I didn't want this to be my last game.”
Anderson, now 32-1 and winners of 24 straight games, had led 17-15 after the first quarter, but Simon Kenton went on a 9-0 run in the first two minutes of the second frame. The Pioneers led 34-26 at the half, as Owings was virtually unstoppable. The 5-foot-2 junior had 17 points at the break and had hit three 3-point shots.
That Anderson limited Owings to five second half points – none in the extra period – played a big role in the Lady Bearcats' win. McKee, Corrin Robinson and Marissa Walker all took their turns at slowing the Simon Kenton dynamo. “She is a very good player,” Robinson said. “We were lucky enough to shut her down.”
Simon Kenton, which finished 28-6, turned back one Anderson rally that saw the Lady Bearcats pull within 36-35 at the 4:55 mark of the third quarter, but the Anderson pressure eventually took its toll on the Pioneers.
After Owings hit the first of two free throws to put her team up 59-49 with 3:15 to play, Simon Kenton hit two of its last eight charity tosses. Two of those misses were the front end of bonus situations.
Down 61-51, Anderson's Corrin Robinson started the miraculous rally with a drive into the lane at the 1:20 mark. Eight seconds later, McKee converted a steal. After an Anderson timeout, McKee struck again with another steal and layup.
Whiteside claimed the rebound when Simon Kenton's Christina Cook missed the front end of the bonus, setting up another drive through the lane by McKee to make it 61-59.
After Owings missed two free throws, Robinson went to the line to calmly sink a pair that tied things with 39.4 seconds to go.
Nervous? “Just a little bit, but I was confident in my shot and knew I had to hit them,” Robinson said.
After Cook walked, McKee drove for a basket that gave Anderson its first lead since the first quarter, but Cook had a chance to redeem herself with a running flip that tied things at 63 with 11.9 seconds to go. Cook missed a chance at a 3-point play but in a wild scramble, Simon Kenton came up with the ball, but was forced to try for a game-winner on an out-of-bounds play with 0:00.9 showing on the game clock.
After what seemed to be the longest 9/10 of a second in Anderson's life, Owings' shot was well off the mark.
Simon Kenton got a quick lead in the overtime when Kelsey Schmiade hit a free throw, then Paige Bosse put back a rebound, almost negating Simon Kenton's obvious fatigue and Anderson's momentum.
But with Anderson trailing and only 2:31 left in the extra frame, Cann came up with a steal and layup to draw Anderson within one.
Bosse, who scored 14 points, connected in the lane, but Cann answered with a 3-pointer with 1:19 to play, prompting Simon Kenton to call timeout.
The Pioneers missed a layup at the 1:00 mark setting up the wild finish.
“You have to tip your hat to Anderson,” Stowers said. “They played all the way through the game.”
Whiteside could only break into a big smile when asked about the apparent impossible detour to Diddle. “I was thinking, 'We can still do this.'”
**The Anderson News will also update Sweet 16 information, including ticket sales and any possible local festivities before the Lady Bearcats head to their final destination, Diddle Arena.