On a night when the outdoor temperature felt more like March than November, the Male girls’ basketball team knocked off defending state champion Butler in a game that seemed more meant for March, too.
Buoyed by some great second-half 3-point shooting, and a balanced scoring attack, the host Bulldogs rallied for a 68-62 win over the Bearettes in an early-season matchup of state heavyweights.
Junior guard Emilia Sexton scored a game-high 20 points to pace four players in double digits as Male (1-0), which was No. 5 in The Courier-Journal’s preseason coaches poll, ended No. 1 Butler’s 14-game winning streak that dates back to last season.
“I think if we do that every game it’ll be really hard to be stopped,” Sexton said.
Sexton scored 14 of her points in the second half after the Bulldogs trailed 36-27 at halftime. Male erased that deficit with some dead-eye shooting.
After missing all nine of their first-half 3-point attempts, the Bulldogs hit all five of their shots from long range in the third quarter. Sexton and senior forward Kyra Hogan each hit a pair of 3s and Logan Calvert hit one. Calvert’s 3 capped an 11-0 run, giving Male a 40-38 lead less than four minutes into the third.
“We’ve got several young ladies who are good 3-point shooters. They show it in practice all the time, but they’re just now starting to get the confidence to shoot them in the game,” Bulldogs coach Champ Ligon said. “It kind of just balanced out. We missed them all in the first half, made them all in the second half. If you’re going to pick one, pick the second half.”
That hot shooting helped Male open up a five-point lead before Butler cut it to one (49-48) by the end of the period.
A jumper by Butler’s Fontasia Jeffries tied it at 54 with 3:32 to play, but sophomore center Cameron Browning hit two free throws on the Bulldogs’ ensuing possession to give them the lead for good. Then, after an empty Bearettes’ possession, Hogan hit her third 3-pointer to increase Male’s lead to five.
The Bulldogs hit 8 of 10 free throws in the final 45 seconds to hold off Butler’s last-ditch rally.
Junior guard Ciaja Harbison, Sexton’s backcourt mate, added 13 points while Browning tallied 12. Browning also helped the Bulldogs battle Butler to a draw in rebounding.
“We felt like that was a real key,” Ligon said. “Because the two games they beat us last year they just absolutely smashed us on the boards. They’re a big, physical team. We talked about it and to the girls’ credit they stepped up and did a really nice job.”
Senior guard Fontasia Jeffries paced the Bearettes with 18 points while senior forward Jaelynn Penn added 15.Penn, an Indiana University signee and one of the frontrunners for Miss Basketball, had 11 points in the first half, but only four in the second. Butler played without forward Janna Lewis, one of five college-bound seniors on the team, for undisclosed reasons.
“When you play good teams both groups are going to make runs, it’s just a matter of who makes what run and when they make the run,” said Butler coach Larry Just, whose team was ranked No. 21 in the USA Today preseason Super 25. “We made ours before the half. The third quarter they come out and shoot lights out from 3-point range. Credit them for hitting shots. We didn’t get out and defend. We knew we needed to, we just didn’t. First half, they had some of the same shots they just didn’t make them. That’s the nature of basketball.
“As crazy as it sounds, we’re in November. One loss at this point is not going to make or break you, it’s going to be a matter of what you do from here on and how you grow from it.”
Ligon, meanwhile, hopes both teams win their respective regions so they can meet up again in March, in the Sweet 16 at Northern Kentucky University.
“Be careful what you wish for, but I’d like to see them at the end of the year too,” he said. “That would mean something for us if we play them at the very end of the season. I’d like them to have a rematch with us.”
Butler (0-1): Torrens 6, Jeffries 18, Goodlett 5, Penn 15, Lockhart 8, Cain 6, Just 2, Wright 2.
Male (1-0): Harbison 13, Sexton 20, Hogan 10, Calvert 9, Browning 12 Johnson 2, Green 2.
3-point goals: Jeffries 4, Hogan 3, Sexton 2, Calvert 1, Goodlett 1, Torrens 1.