Defense, Turner lift Holy Cross in state quarterfinals

Holy Cross players Aleah Tucker, left, and Ally Mayhaus celebrate at the final buzzer as Elizabethtown players fall to the floor in agony. Holy Cross 41, Elizabethtown 40. KHSAA Sweet 16 state quarterfinals. March 13, 2015, Western Kentucky University, Diddle Arena

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – The Holy Cross girls basketball team has spent the entire postseason putting the clamps on some of Kentucky’s most potent offenses.

After another day of dominating defense Friday afternoon, the Indians needed one big play on offense to keep their state championship hopes alive.

They got it from senior guard Deja Turner, who hit a running floater from the baseline that dropped in the net with four seconds to play to lead the Indians to a 41-40 win over Elizabethtown in a Sweet 16 state quarterfinal. HC (31-3) advances to play Louisville Male (26-4) in the first semifinal 7:30 EDT Saturday. E’town ends 32-3.

“It’s awesome, but it wasn’t just one player,” Turner said. “It was the whole team, a whole team effort the entire game. We had to stay focused and we had to keep on fighting to win.”

Turner, a Wright State signee, led all scorers with 23 points but struggled from the floor, shooting 7-of-21. She made 7-of-8 free throws in the effort.

“There were a lot of plays late in the game where we could have folded,” said HC head coach Kes Murphy. “We found a way to win. Thank God ‘DT’ hit that floater. She hadn’t hit one all game, I don’t think, so she was due.”

The shot became necessary after E’town senior center Reauna Cleaver converted a layup while being fouled with 22 seconds to go. Her free throw gave the Panthers their first lead (40-39) since late in the first period.

With time running down, HC junior guard Dajah McClendon dribbled into the lane and drew defenders to her before dishing the ball out to a wide-open Turner in the corner. Turner took the opening and dribbled a couple of times before putting up the one-handed floater from about eight feet. The ball hit both sides of the rim before dropping through.

“The same thing that was open all game,” Turner said. “I just couldn’t hit that runner; it was there the whole entire game. The girls always tell me ‘Confidence, keep shooting, the next one is going to fall.'”

The Indians were considered big underdogs against Elizabethtown, who was the prohibitive favorite for the state title. The Panthers are led by one of the nation’s top players, junior forward Erin Boley, who averages 20 points per game and has committed to Notre Dame.

E’town averaged nearly 70 points per game and had only scored less than 60 three times against Kentucky teams. Both of its other losses came out of state.

“E’town was being made out like Goliath,” Murphy said. “Everybody put them in the championship. I don’t think people even saw us as David’s little sister. But we know who we are. We know if we do the things we can do, that we can play with anybody.”

The Indians weren’t intimidated.

“We like being the underdog,” Turner said. “We’ve been it all season, and that just gives us more motivation to want to keep going. They’re a basketball team like we’re a basketball team. They’re in the gym just like we’re in the gym. We have the same concept. We all go out there, we put on a jersey and play on the same floor and shoot with the same ball.”

The Panthers had the early advantage at 6-2, and had possession looking to make an early statement when McClendon poked the ball away from Boley, picked it up and threw it into the frontcourt for senior Ally Mayhaus, who had sprinted behind the defense. She scored an easy layup. HC took the lead at 11-10 entering the second period on a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Aleah Tucker.

Turner hit a three in the second period to put HC up 14-10, but E’town took an 18-17 lead into halftime.

The Indians controlled the action out of the locker room, starting on an 8-0 run to take a seven-point lead at 25-18. Turner and Tucker started with baskets, then Turner and Mayhaus both hit a pair of free throws.

Still leading by four at 29-25 early in the fourth period, HC extended the lead when the tiny Tucker scored on a tough drive to the basket over two taller defenders. On E’town’s next trip, senior center Cessie Mayhaus stole the ball under the basket and started a fastbreak, with McClendon racing up the court and dishing to Turner for a layup. HC led by eight (33-25) with 5:31 to play.

Boley scored eight of the Panthers’ next 10 points, but McClendon and Turner responded with tough floaters inside, and HC still led 39-35 with 1:40 to play. Cleaver made two foul shots with 1:10 to go to make it 39-37.

With 39 seconds left, Turner had the ball and was looking to draw a foul but instead was called for a controversial offensive foul. E’town got the ball back, which allowed Cleaver to put her team in front.

The Indians continued their outstanding defensive prowess in the postseason. In seven playoff wins, Holy Cross has allowed 35 points per game, and has limited its last five unique foes to its lowest output of the season.

E’town’s previous low was 43 against Blackman (Tenn.) and its lowest score against a Kentucky foe was 51. HC limited Bell County to 33 in the first round of the Sweet 16, and Bell’s previous low was 51. The same held true in the Ninth Region Tournament, as the Indians limited St. Henry to 33 and Highlands to 32 before beating Holmes 53-43. Holmes scored 47, 30 and 43 in its only three losses of the year, all to Holy Cross, but regularly scored 60 and up against everyone else.

“It was our defense, and on offense we kept it at our pace and didn’t let them speed us up,” said Ally Mayhaus.

Said Murphy: “They have some great players. We had to buckle down and communicate on defense, minimize gaps. We had to finish plays, box out and get rebounds. We were able to get in transition a little bit and get some easy buckets.”

Holy Cross only shot 35 percent from the floor (13-37) but limited E’town to 33 percent (12-36). Tucker had six points for HC and Ally Mayhaus six with three blocked shots. Mayhaus and the diminutive Tucker had six boards apiece. Boley and Cleaver each had 17 points for E’town and combined for 17 rebounds.

“Their matchup (zone) was good,” said E’town head coach Tim Mudd. “We tried just about everything that we had in the package. It made us stand around. When we did take the ball to the hole, you had two 6-foot-3 girls there (the Mayhaus twins), so I’m sure that was intimidating as well. A couple of times we missed really good shots, and that happens. That’s part of the game.”

Holy Cross stands to face a similar challenge Saturday against Male in the semifinals. Male averages 66 ppg. and has scored 78 and 86 in its first two tournament wins, including an 86-81 win over Henderson County Friday which was the second-highest combined point total in the history of the Sweet 16.

Henderson had beaten Male 47-28 on Jan. 30. That game turned out to be a huge outlier, as the Bulldogs have only been held into the 50’s four times by Kentucky foes.

Murphy said it’s just another obstacle.

“We didn’t come down here to beat E’town,” he said. “We came down here to win the state championship. So we realize we have more games to play. We’ve got two more.”

Elizabethtown (32-3): Boley 4 9 17, Cleaver 6 5 17, Huff 0 1 1, Stinson 2 0 5. Totals 12 15 40.

Holy Cross (31-3): Turner 7 7 23, McClendon 1 0 2, Hassert 0 1 1, Tucker 3 0 7, A. Mayhaus 2 2 6, C. Mayhaus 0 2 2. Totals 13 12 41.

Halftime, Elizabethtown 18-17. 3-pointers: ET 1 (Stinson). HC 3 (Turner 2, Tucker).

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