A Bowling Green native who played college basketball at Western Kentucky University, LaVonda Johnson might be expected to have strong feelings about the Girls Sweet 16 being moved from her hometown after a 15-year run.
But like most of the coaches who led their teams to this year’s Sweet 16, Johnson is looking forward to trying out a new venue.
“Of course I’m partial to WKU and sad for it,” said Johnson, now the head coach at Bowling Green High School. “But I’ve said before that I don’t care where the state tournament is. It could be played in another country. I just want us to be there.”
The Girls Sweet 16 will usher in a new era — though it could be brief — on Wednesday when the St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA state tournament tips off at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
MORE COVERAGE | Girls Sweet 16 schedule
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s Board of Control voted in May of 2014 to award the event to NKU, hopeful that having it in a more populated area than Bowling Green will mean bigger crowds.
BB&T Arena, which opened in 2008, has a capacity of 9,400.
“It’s like a mini-Yum! Center,” said Butler coach Larry Just, referencing the University of Louisville’s downtown arena. “I think it’s going to be a great venue for what they’re doing.”
Highland Heights will be the first host city for the Girls Sweet 16 other than Bowling Green since the 1999 event was held at Eastern Kentucky University’s McBrayer Arena in Richmond, Ky.
Instead of its usual four-year deals, the KHSAA awarded the event to Northern Kentucky for just the 2016 and 2017 tournaments. At the time of the announcement, KHSAA commissioner Julian Tackett said the two-year deal provided a safeguard for his organization and the host venue.
“They said in their proposal … ‘Really, we’d rather commit to two (years) and see how it goes,” Tackett said in 2014. “They may not like it. We have to remember that. It sounds really good now. At the same time, will an injection of enthusiasm in a new place grow it? You won’t know until you try.”
The event figures to be a highly competitive one, as eight of the top 11 teams in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings qualified — No. 1 Elizabethtown, No. 2 Butler, No. 4 Mercer County, No. 5 Franklin County, No. 6 Manual, No. 7 Murray, No. 9 Holmes and No. 11 Bowling Green.
E’town enters the Sweet 16 as the state’s No. 1 team for the third straight year but still is seeking its first state title since 1998. The Panthers lost to Butler in the 2014 final and fell to eventual champion Covington Holy Cross in last year’s quarterfinals.
The Panthers feature the overwhelming choice as the state’s top player in Notre Dame signee Erin Boley, a 6-foot-2 forward who is averaging 24.4 points and 10.7 rebounds.
“I believe that the toughest team physically and mentally will win it,” E’town coach Tim Mudd said. “Last year I said our bracket was really, really tough, and it was tough. It just showed how tough Covington Holy Cross was.”
Both of Louisville’s qualifiers face tough first-round matchups Thursday, as Manual will face Murray at noon and Butler will meet Bowling Green at 1:30 p.m.
Murray (33-1) has the state’s longest winning streak at 27 games and is trying to match Covington Holy Cross’ feat of last season — winning the All “A” and KHSAA state tournaments.
The top half of the bracket is led by Mercer County and Franklin County, who could meet in Saturday’s semifinals. The final is set for 2 p.m. Sunday.
Mercer County coach Chris Souder tabbed E’town as the favorite.
“They have a McDonald’s All-American in Boley, but they could have a tough matchup with Butler in the second round,” Souder said. “Manual is playing really well, too. They have the size, and I like their shot to get to (the semifinals). …
“I think BB&T Arena will be a great place for the fans. You’re a little closer to the floor. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
ST. ELIZABETH HEALTHCARE/KHSAA GIRLS SWEET 16
* When: Wednesday-Sunday.
* Where: BB&T Arena, Highland Heights, Ky.
* Tickets: $35 (courtside), $18 (reserved) or $13 (general admission) for each two-game session.
* Parking: $5.
* On the web: For updates, follow usatodayhss.com/market/Louisville and Jason Frakes (@kyhighs) on Twitter.