With four weeks left in the regular season, girls’ basketball coaches in Louisville still are looking for a team to emerge as the leader of the pack.
Defending state champion Butler (15-3) was supposed to carry that role this season but showed some vulnerability with a 56-53 loss to Mercy earlier this month. Mercy (14-6) has played a difficult schedule with victories over Butler and Bullitt East but also has lost to Manual and Eastern.
Male (15-1) tops the Seventh Region but hasn’t played any of the top teams in the city. Manual (16-5) owns victories over Mercy and Eastern but also has fallen to Central and Butler.
“There are teams that can step up and beat anyone, and I think that’s the Seventh Region every year,” Manual coach Jeff Sparks said. “It’s been proven this year when you look at who’s beaten whom along the way.”
Perhaps a leader will emerge this week in the 43rd annual Republic Bank/Coca-Cola Louisville Invitational Tournament at Bellarmine University’s Knights Hall. The event will tip off at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and run through Saturday’s 8 p.m. championship game.
The tournament includes the top 12 teams from the Sixth and Seventh regions, including four ranked among the top 20 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings — No. 10 Butler, No. 13 Mercy, No. 16 Male and No. 17 Manual.
The four survivors from Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s games will join a strong group of out-of-town teams for Friday’s quarterfinals — No. 1 Elizabethtown, No. 2 Henderson County, No. 15 Franklin County and Ashland Blazer.
“It’s definitely anybody’s as far as in the city,” Mercy coach Keith Baisch said. “But once you get to Friday with the out-of-city teams, I think this might be one of the strongest fields I can remember in recent years.”
Butler is the top seed among the Louisville-area teams and will face the winner of Tuesday’s North Bullitt-Christian Academy game at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Sophomore Jaelynn Penn (10.4 ppg) leads the team in scoring but didn’t start in Butler’s 58-43 victory over Franklin County on Saturday in the Raatz Fence/O’Shea’s Classic at Mercy on Saturday. The Bearettes may have the deepest team in the city as eight players average at least 5.2 points per game.
“With them being the defending state champion, until someone knocks them off the pedestal I still look at them as the class of the city,” Male coach Champ Ligon said. “But there are a lot of teams nipping at their heels.”
Mercy had won nine of 10 games before a 66-47 loss to St. Louis Incarnate Word on Saturday. Senior Malerie Martin, who has committed to Lindsey Wilson, leads the Jaguars in scoring (15.3 ppg) and rebounding (6.0 rpg).
Male might be the most intriguing team in Louisville after starting 14-0. The Lady Bulldogs suffered their first loss of the season Wednesday, falling 73-61 at No. 7 Henry Clay, but bounced back with a 69-54 victory at Ryle on Friday. Freshman guards Emelia Sexton (12.6 ppg) and Ciaja Harbison (10.6 ppg) lead Male in scoring.
“Sexton is about as good of an outside shooter as you’ll find,” Ligon said. “Ciaja is a finisher around the basket and has good penetration skills.”
Manual has been competitive in every game it’s played, with four of its five losses coming by a combined 10 points. Sophomore Tonysha Curry (12.6 ppg, 7.6 ppg) and junior Krys McCune (9.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg) lead the Lady Crimsons.
Eastern (13-3), Sacred Heart (13-5), Bullitt East (14-6), North Bullitt (15-6), Christian Academy (14-5) and Central (9-6) also have proven capable of pulling an upset or two and reaching Saturday’s semifinals. But it remains to be seen if anyone from the city can keep E’town and Henderson County from meeting in a No. 1-vs.-No. 2 final Saturday night.
“Any of the Louisville teams can pull an upset on a given night, even against E’town,” Baisch said. “But right now it’s going to take E’town to have an off night. They’re the team you have to beat to win it all.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and followed on Twitter @kyhighs.