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To the outsider, it might have seemed like a strange move, but for Anderson County's girls' basketball team, it might have been the most fitting salute any coach could arrange for his team.
With the Lady Bearcats' 63-54 win over highly-regarded Lafayette clearly in hand and just 13.2 seconds remaining, Kays inserted senior Jessica Rice into the lineup for sophomore Kaci Currens.
Senior Night ended with an uneventful trip down the floor but five Anderson seniors have been part of an extraordinary career.
Anderson ended the regular season at 22-4, but that cannot measure the impact of five seniors – Makenzie Cann, Eriel McKee, Alex Avritt, Destiny Stewart and Rice – have created. They've been around the varsity program five years, a span that has seen Anderson have a perfect record against district foes, win two regional championships and, now sport a record of 123 wins and 30 losses.
(McKee and Cann both played as seventh-graders. Their varsity record stood at 143-37 heading into Tuesday's district tournament opener.)
There were no timeouts to get individual rounds of applause. Just a simple move that ensured a special class would share one final walk off the home court together.
“I wanted the five seniors out there on the floor,” Kays said. “They have been out there all year.”
As the final horn sounded, a crowd that reflected an ever-increasing awareness of where the Lady Cat Class of 2014 will stand in local sports history erupted in a prolonged and heart-felt round of applause.
How the Lady Bearcats, ranked No. 2 in both major computer ratings, outlasted Lafayette, ranked No. 5 or No. 8, depending on the service, was also a testament to how Anderson has become one of Kentucky's best programs.
Sure, McKee scored 25 points, some coming on acrobatic moves around the basket. McKee also came up with four steals.
Cann added 15 points, 11 coming in the final 5:16 when she hit 7-of-8 free throws. For good measure, Cann blocked Ken'yale Demus' shot with Anderson clinging to a 53-49 lead inside the final two minutes.
Avritt delivered eight points and buried a huge three-pointer early in the fourth quarter after Lafayette had pulled within 42-40. Avritt also snared six rebounds.
“Alex has been playing great the last few games,” Kays said. “She has picked it up a notch. It is almost like it has clicked in and she is saying, 'I am a senior and this is my last go-round. I know what I have got to do.'
“She is playing with a lot of confidence.”
Rice's only basket, a three-pointer, kept Anderson from being shut out in the second quarter after building a 23-13 lead at the first quarter break. The Bearcats never trailed.
Stewart delivered her normal heady floor game against a Lafayette team the possessed size and athleticism like the Lady Bearcats had not seen all year.
It took that kind of effort, plus key contributions from the Anderson bench to produce the win. McKee picked up her second foul with 33 seconds left in the first quarter and was limited to 21 minutes of action.
“We got big games from a lot of people,” Kays said, noting the contributions of Currens and juniors Corrin Robinson and Missa Walker off the bench. “That is a nice luxury to have. We have a bench we feel we can count on and feel confident in putting them in those spots and those situations.”
“We have lots of players who can do the job,” Avritt said. “We are a team.”
Defensively, the Lady Bearcats held Lafayette center Ashanti Thomas, considered by some the top player in the 11th Region and listed at 6-foot-4, to just two points.
“Coach (Wayne) King knew we would be facing a team like that,” said Cann, who spent most of the night guarding Thomas. “He has been working with me all year.”
Freshman Kiara Pankins led Lafayette, which fell to 21-3, with 21 points while Dee Givens added 17.
“We knew Pankins could shoot, but we didn't know she was so good at driving,” Kays said. “Givens was so athletic, too. You have to be careful where you help from and how you help against a team like that. Our kids did a good job defensively, rotating and communicating. They were just showing physical toughness.”
And the Lady Bearcats displayed the mental toughness of a champion. McKee and Cann combined to score all but three of Andeson's 21 points in the fourth quarter.
“That is why they are both Miss Basketball finalists,” Kays said. “They want the ball when the game is on the line.”
Both sank all four of their free throw attempts in the final two minutes. As a team, Anderson connected on 20-of-23 (87 percent) from the line.
While the Lady Bearcats walked off the floor together and participated in a post-game reception, there was little celebration.
It might have been Senior Night, but the Lady Bearcats believe they have a lot more basketball to play.
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