Girls' Sweet 16 looks wide open this year

Tony Kays didn’t tell his Anderson County High School girls’ basketball team, but he knew the deal entering last year’s state tournament: “We all felt like we were playing for second place.”

Such was the dominance of Marion County, which backed Kays’ feeling by winning its four Sweet 16 games by an average of 24.8 points to cap a 39-0 season.

But parity is back this season, and hope springs eternal for all 16 teams as the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 tips off Wednesday at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green.

The season started with no clear-cut favorite, and 3½ months of play has done little to change that.

“There are six, eight, 10 teams that possibly have a chance to win this thing if there’s an upset here or there,” Kays said. “It’s a pretty deep tournament.”

The field includes the top four teams in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings: No. 1 Elizabethtown, No. 2 Butler, No. 3 Anderson County and No. 4 Henderson County. Four others are in the top 14: No. 6 Lafayette, No. 7 Sacred Heart, No. 10 Glasgow and No. 14 Newport Central Catholic.

Most coaches hesitated to pick just one favorite, though most seemed to agree that E’town deserves its No. 1 ranking. The Panthers (29-4) lost just twice to Kentucky opponents this season (Mercy and LaRue County) but avenged both of those defeats in rematches.

They are on a 14-game winning streak since a 65-58 loss to LaRue County on Jan. 27, capped by a 73-56 victory over that team in Sunday’s Fifth Region final.

“I don’t know if we would have won Sunday if we wouldn’t have lost that first game to LaRue,” coach Tim Mudd said. “I enjoy winning as much as anybody, but that loss was kind of an eye-opener for us. … I think that helped us refocus a bit and understand that we weren’t as good as we thought we were.”

E’town features one of the nation’s top sophomores in Erin Boley, a 6-foot-1 post player who is averaging 20.5 points and 9.2 rebounds and shooting 55 percent from the field.

“I’m shocked when she shoots it and it doesn’t go in,” Mudd said.

With Elizabethtown in the bottom half of the bracket, Butler (28-3) is the top-ranked team in the top half. The Bear­ettes are led by senior Danielle Lawrence (an IUPUI sign­ee) and Jaelynn Penn, who heads a talented and deep freshman class.

Coach Larry Just has Butler in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons and may have his best shot at a crown.

“If we can somehow relax and go in comfortable and confident, I would take my team and my chances against anyone who’s down there this week,” Just said. “I feel we have more depth than anybody who’s going to walk into the tournament.”

Anderson County (27-4) reached the Sweet 16 semifinals last year and has two Miss Basketball finalists in Makenzie Cann (Cincinnati signee) and Eriel McKee (Morehead State signee). The Lady Bearcats have won 12 in a row since falling to Sacred Heart in the semifinals of the Louisville Invitational Tournament on Feb. 1.

“We focused on getting better since then … and I do think we’re a better ballclub than we were a month ago,” Kays said.

Henderson County (24-5) is in the field for the second straight year but lost to both E’town (80-63) and Butler (64-48) during a seven-day span in mid-February.

Lafayette (27-3), Sacred Heart (27-7), Glasgow (29-6) and Newport Central Catholic (29-4) have solid shots to make deep runs. Glasgow, the All “A” Classic champion, is on a state-best 18-game winning streak.

The event also features the state’s all-time winningest coach in Perry County Central’s Randy Napier. He’s in his 10th Sweet 16, and it’s as wide-open as he can recall.

“There may be four or five that are a little better than everybody else … but there are another seven or eight back in the pack that with a little luck and some momentum could pull a shocker,” he said. “I really think it’s going to be one of those years.”

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