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BOWLING GREEN – After the brutal winter of 2014, it was almost a cruel irony that the basketball season in Anderson County ended with a snowball.
Not a literal one. Just the figurative kind that Elizabethtown used to demolish the Lady Bearcats' state championship hopes Friday night in the quarterfinal round of the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls' Sweet 16.
Simply put, little went right for Anderson in what was expected to be a down-to-the-wire showdown between the two girls' high school basketball teams that many in Kentucky felt were the best in the state.
As the final tally from E-town's 58-37 win would suggest, if it could go wrong for Anderson County, it did.
When they exited the Anderson County lineup for the final time with 1:47 to play, the five Lady Bearcat seniors shed tears profusely. Makenzie Cann, Eriel McKee, Jessica Rice, Alex Avritt and Destiny Stewart had started 31 of their team's 33 games this year together. The only exceptions were when McKee and Cann both missed one due to illness.
It was not a coincidence that the five who stuck it out since they had come together in the sixth grade left together seven seasons later.
When Kays showed up at the post-game press conference about 15 minutes after the game had ended, he dispensed with the protocol of having two players join him and brought all five. Their eyes were still red and puffy, but occasionally they managed faint smiles.
“I told them we needed some of those 10-point shots and needed about three of them real quick,” Kays quipped when asked what he said to his team when he called a time out with 4:17 to play.
At the time, Anderson trailed 51-28 and could only hope for a miracle like 10-point shots. The Lady Bearcats laughed.
But underneath, the hurt was real for a team that began the year ranked No. 1 in the state and never fell below No. 4 in any of the major polls. And for the vast majority of the season, Anderson and Elizabethtown occupied the top two spots in the major polls.
Friday, E-town was clearly better and there was little the Lady Bearcats could do about it. Anderson finished its season at 28-5.
Anderson, which normally shot better than 44 percent from the floor and 36 percent from the 3-point line, connected on just 22.6 percent against E-town.
“I give them credit,” Kays said. “It was tough to score against that defense.”
“I thought tonight was about as good defensively as we can play,” said E-town coach Tim Mudd, who recorded his 500th win as E-town's head coach Friday. “We are not really a man-to-man defensive team. We knew where Cann was at all times. We wanted to stay on McKee's right hand as much as we could to limit penetration. We were able to do that. We also knew some of their other kids could hit threes.
“We knew they were very perimeter-oriented. If we could just get a hand up and challenge the 3-balls, I felt like we had a really good chance of winning.
“When you play a team like Anderson County, to me, it's a little dicey. You can go into a night when they are hot hot and you are constantly playing catch-up. That is what happened the first time we played them. We were down 10-12 but wound up winning. They got hot on us, but tonight, they just never caught fire. I am hoping that was because of our defense, but it could have been a bad shooting night.”
In that first meeting on Dec. 23, the teams were tied with five minutes to play but Anderson hit a drought and E-town pulled out to a 51-42 win.
Friday, Anderson led for only 3:30. E-town took the lead at 6-5 when Cleaver scored on a layup. It was the second basket in a 10-0 run that put the Lady Panthers in control.
Cann broke the run with a jumper in the paint to make it 12-7 but Anderson was never closer. By halftime, the deficit was 35-19 and the E-town lead grew to as many as 25 in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Bearcats had no answer for E-town's twin towers, 6-foot-1 sophomore Erin Boley, the state's Gatorade Player of the Year, and 6-3 Reauna Cleaver. The Panthers out-rebounded Anderson 42-23 and scored a whopping 38 points in the paint to Anderson's six.
Boley scored 17 points, all in the first half, and grabbed 14 rebounds. Cleaver totaled 10 points and 12 boards, but blocked five shots.
“They are really big and not weak at all,” Cann said.
But perhaps even more detrimental to the Anderson hopes was the fact that McKee got in early foul trouble. Anderson's all-time scoring leader tallied just 13 points in 22 minutes. Anderson knew that it could not afford foul trouble on either of its Miss Basketball finalists, Cann, who had nine points, or McKee.
In the final 1:39 of the first quarter, it happened, though, when McKee was whistled for two fouls.
“When Eriel goes out, we get a little smaller and a little slower,” Kays said. “She does everything for us. She has all of her career, so that did put us in a bind a little bit.”
But it was also what Elizabethtown wanted.
“That made a big difference,” Mudd said. “It's like us not having (Boley or Cleaver) in the game. … That was part of our plan. We wanted to go at Cann and McKee. We knew they would be guarding Erin and (Cleaver) so that was kind of the plan.
“I thought we were able to do that and it played a huge part in the game. We were able to open up that lead in the first half.”
Kays gambled, but less than two minutes into the second quarter, McKee picked up her third foul and remained on the bench the rest of the half and did not start the third quarter.
“I probably should have gotten her out a little quicker,” Kays said, “but at this point, we really couldn't afford to have her out of the game, so we roll the dice, hoping she doesn't get another foul but she does so it changes the mindset of the coaches and the players.”
Ever since they became members of the Anderson varsity as eighth-graders, the five Lady Cat seniors had focused on winning a state championship. They probably good enough to do just that in 2014.
But the dream turned to a nightmare Friday.
“That was a very good team we faced tonight,” Kays said. “They were just dominant in their performance. They got on us early and we struggled to keep them off the boards. Things just snowballed on us.
“Then Eriel got in foul trouble. It was like the perfect storm.
“They just dominated on the boards and we struggled offensively. In their 2-3 zone, they were very active.
“Things went south pretty quick.”