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Girls' basketball: Dirty-work defense cleans up against Franklin

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McKee, Rice lead Anderson past Flyers

By John Herndon

There were undoubtedly many who made it to Anderson County's Top 10 showdown with Franklin County last Tuesday who are not regulars at girls' high school basketball games.

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With the home side of the stands having only a few empty seats, it was undoubtedly the largest crowd of the season to see the Lady Bearcats and was one of the largest gatherings ever at Anderson for a regular-season girls' basketball game that was not part of a double-header with the boys.

It would be safe to assume some of those casual fans had heard about Anderson County's sleek fast break or the Lady Bearcats' ability to sizzle from beyond three-point range.

But the Lady Bearcats, ranked No. 3 in Kentucky in every major poll, had to resort to some get-down-and-get-dirty defense to outlast visiting Franklin County, ranked as high as No. 6, in a 45-42 thriller.

“That is what I am most proud of,” said Anderson coach Tony Kays. “I am really proud of the kids to come out ahead like this on a night where it wasn't our best shooting night, but we say, 'Defense wins championships.'”

And last Tuesday, the Lady Bearcats had a championship-level defensive performance against the high-scoring Flyers. Whether it was Eriel McKee pulling off another spectacular steal and turning into a layup or Alex Avritt putting on a clinic in fundamental defense late, the Lady Bearcats found a way to prevail.

Little went right for the Lady Bearcats offensively. They hit just 4-of-18 three-point shots and never found their offensive rhythm. Miss Basketball finalist Makenzie Cann, who appeared to be suffering a bit of a relapse from a sickness that had sidelined her two weeks before, missed all six of her 3-point attempts and finished with just seven points.

But Anderson's other Miss Basketball finalist, Eriel McKee, took over in the second half, scoring 12 points – including Anderson's final eight – as the Lady Bearcats overcame a 24-21 halftime deficit.

“It just flowed to me,” McKee said of how things evolved during the game. “It is what I do best, so I just took it to the rim.”

Indeed.

With Anderson clinging to a 39-36 lead with two minutes to play, McKee drove for a basket. Thirty seconds later, she pulled off a heist at mid-court and turned that into another basket. Then with 39 seconds to go, McKee got free along the baseline, took an out-of-bounds pass from Cann, then laid the ball in to give Anderson a 45-38 advantage.

Franklin scored on a pair of free throws with seven seconds left and Malaka Frank hit an uncontested layup at the buzzer to set the final score.

McKee finished with 18 points to lead all scorers. “That was just Eriel,” Kays said. “She is so capable of doing that. She is always doing something like that and raises the level of her game. She is going to be around the ball.

“Eriel increased her defensive pressure and we finally got a matchup where we felt she would have a little bit of an advantage.”

That Anderson was even in a position to win was in large part due to a defense that did not allow any Franklin player to score over 10 points and hot shooting from senior Jessica Rice, who lit up the Flyers for 11 points, all in the first half. While the rest of the Anderson team struggled offensively, Rice swished all three of her 3-point shots to keep the Lady Bearcats within striking distance.

“If Jessica doesn't hit those shots, we are way down early,” Kays noted. “She has done that before. Jessica is playing with a lot of confidence lately and I thought her defense was good tonight”

McKee added, “She is stepping up like we need her to.”

But in what turned out to be a chess match – “It was very intense. They are a big rival,” Rice said – it was the least glamorous part of the game, defense, that mattered most.

“You have to give a lot of credit to Franklin County,” Kays said. “Their changing defenses kept us out of sync early. They are very well-coached team and have a good shot to win the 11th Region.”

But Kays was also complimentary of his team's willingness to do the little things that separates the great from the good. Anderson aspires to post-season greatness in 2014.

Kays noted senior Alex Avritt as an example. “She did all the little things,” Kays said. “She did them in every aspect of the game. She is making good decisions and has really stepped it up. She is our strongest defensive player and she guarded Frank. Frank got four points in the second half and two of them were on a last-second layup, so that is an outstanding job.”

Both teams are slight favorites to win their respective regions, but would not see each other again until the state championship game on March 16 in Bowling Green. There is a lot of basketball to be played, but the teams might have gotten a taste of what it will take last Tuesday.

“We had a great crowd tonight,” Kays said. “It felt like it had a post-season type atmosphere. You had two very intense teams playing hard and battling.”

And that, more than the high-octane, spectacular highlights, is what makes a championship team.

 

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