Marion County's top-rated girls' basketball team left Rupp Arena Sunday afternoon not only with a 51-47 victory over No. 4 Scott County, but also a better understanding of what it's going to take to survive in March.
"We've got to do a better job of finishing teams off," Coach Trent Milby said after his Knights held on despite shaky (10-for-23) free-throw shooting in the second half.
"It's the mental aspect of the game we've got to improve on. We can't lose focus on defense, and we've got to make foul shots down the stretch."
Bre Elder, a junior standout who led the winners with 20 points and nine rebounds, said this is a different Marion County team than the one that tore through last season mostly unchallenged until it reached the Sweet Sixteen.
"Last year we were more of a come, show up and beat teams by 30 points. This year we've gotta have the mindset of playing hard every minute of every game to win."
"We were so explosive last season, we'd go on 20-0 runs. We're more of a grind-it-out team this year."
Marion County's grind-it-out style staked it to a double-digit lead against Scott County in the Racing to the Rim Showcase, but it shrank to almost nothing in the closing minutes.
Makayla Epps hit just enough free throws to hold off the Cards.
Not that Scott County didn't have chances, but it couldn't get anything to fall when it counted the most.
One glaring statistic: the Cards were 1-for-10 from the foul line for the day.
"It was a game of missed opportunities," Coach Steve Helton said.
"This was our first chance to bounce back from a tough (25-point loss to No. 3) Rockcastle County Friday night.
"At times we gave ourselves a chance. At other times we just faded. We've just got to get more consistent."
Paige Eaton hit four three-pointers in the second half to lead Scott County with 12 points. Kristin Stainback had 11 points. Alex McKenzie had six points and six rebounds.
"It was a lot like a roller coaster ride, and I hate roller coasters," Helton said.
"But I really think we're going to improve. Our young kids have time to grow up.
"The regular season is just a dress rehearsal. The important thing is surviving the 11th Region tournament."
Marion County has the same kind of outlook.
It has plenty of talent, led by Epps, whose dad Anthony was the point guard on UK's 1996 NCAA title team; Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, whose dad Tick Rogers was Mr. Basketball at Hart County and went on to play at Louisville, and Elder, who is sometimes overshadowed by her famous-name teammates.
But the Knights learned a valuable lesson last season when, after taking a 33-1 record into the Sweet Sixteen, they lost to Mercy in the first round.
"We can't take anything for granted," Elder said.
Milby underscored that attitude. "The regular season doesn't mean anything," he said. "We want to win as much as we can, but the bottom line is we want to get back to the state tournament and win it."
MARION COUNTY (4-0) -- Epps 3-9 5-12 12, Elder 6-14 8-11 20, Goodin-Rogers 3-7 2-6 8, Tonge 1-6 2-2 4, Goodin 1-4 0-0 2, May 2-2 1-1 5, Simpson 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 16-43 18-32 51.
SCOTT COUNTY (4-2) -- Stainback 5-8 1-4 11, Eaton 4-8 0-0 12, Guyn 3-4 0-0 6, McKenzie 3-4 0-2 6, Guy 0-1 0-0 0, Christopher 5-16 0-0 10, Logsdon 1-1 0-0 2, Conrad 0-2 0-2 0. Totals 21-44 1-10 47.
Marion County 17 12 13 9—51
Scott County 12 9 10 16—47