BOWLING GREEN, Ky.
With nine seconds remaining and the state championship all but decided, Danielle Lawrence left the game and jumped into the arms of her coach for a huge hug.
Forget about being left off the list of Miss Basketball finalists. Lawrence is leaving Butler High School as a state champion.
She provided her usual steady leadership and a deep group of underclassmen once again played beyond their years as the Bearettes beat Elizabethtown 49-38 in Sunday’s championship game of the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Sweet 16.
A crowd of 4,284 at E.A. Diddle Arena saw Butler, No. 2 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, knock off No. 1 E’town to capture its fourth state championship and first since 2008.
It was a storybook finish for Lawrence, who had 13 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals and was named Sweet 16 MVP. The IUPUI signee was not among the seven finalists for Miss Basketball and admitted the snub motivated her during the final weeks of the season.
“Danielle has earned everything she’s gotten,” coach Larry Just said. “There’s no better way for her to go out right now. She’s a great kid, and … I’m happy it’s worked out for her.”
Sophomore Allison Just, the coach’s daughter, had 10 points and made two key shots in the fourth quarter, and freshman Tasia Jeffries added nine points for Butler (32-3), which finished the season with a 20-game winning streak.
With Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma in the stands watching her, sophomore Erin Boley had 18 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Panthers (32-5). E’town, which has just one senior on its roster, went scoreless over the final 5:27 during a somewhat strange finish.
Panthers coach Tim Mudd said his young team adeptly handled the pressure of the Sweet 16 through its first three games.
“Today it got to us a little bit,” he said. “It was pretty obvious there in the first quarter with uncharacteristic turnovers and decision-making. We’re dealing with 14- and 15-year-old kids, so you don’t know.”
Butler used its trademark press to force turnovers on three of E’town’s first four possessions and continued its tournament-long trend of strong 3-point shooting. Lawrence hit one for a 7-4 lead, Jeffries made two straight to make it 17-9 and Madison Winebrenner nailed one in the final seconds to give the Bearettes a 20-9 lead after one quarter.
Larry Just said the fast start was big.
“Our hope was that we could get off to a fast start … and make them play from behind and see how they’d do,” he said. “We got off to a great start.”
E’town closed the first half with a 10-3 run to pull within 28-22 and three times cut the lead to one point in the second half. But the Bearettes always had answers.
With her team ahead 33-32, Lawrence blocked Boley’s shot and sprinted downcourt for a layup with 25 seconds left in the third quarter. Her steal and layup made it 37-32 to open the fourth.
“I felt like LeBron James when I blocked (Boley’s) shot,” Lawrence said. “She’s a great player, so I felt good blocking her shot and getting the layup.”
Boley’s basket pulled the Panthers to 37-36, but Just responded with a baseline jumper. After Boley sank two free throws to make it 39-38 with 5:27 remaining — E’town’s last points of the game — Just sank a 3-pointer from the right corner and Micaiah Bowden made a left-handed jumper in the lane for a 44-38 advantage with 4:24 left.
After Rachel Warden missed a 3-point try with 3:17 left, Butler was able to run more than two minutes off the clock before E’town committed its seventh foul and sent Jaelynn Penn to the line with 1:11 remaining.
She missed the front end of the one-and-one, but E’town committed a turnover on its next possession, and Butler hit 5 of 8 free throws in the final minute to seal it.
It was the fourth trip to the Sweet 16 in five seasons for Butler, which had failed to reach the semifinals in the previous three.
“I can say this group is different than the other teams I’ve brought,” Jimmy Just said. “They’ve just been together since day one. …
“I don’t know if anyone really gave them a shot in a game like today, but I know they believed all year long. For them to get this, I’m happy for them. It’s something they get to keep for the rest of their lives.”