The 57th St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen state basketball tournament tips off Wednesday at Northern Kentucky University’s BB&T Arena in Highland Heights.
Every tournament is full of entertaining storylines, and 2018 is no different. Here are five points of intrigue surrounding the first round of this year’s Sweet Sixteen.
1.) First-round title game?
It’s silly to try and project exactly how the event will play out — there’s too much randomness in a tournament setting — but the juiciest matchup of the opening slate will be played on the first day and might end up being looked back upon as a de facto state-title game. Mercer County, the defending Sweet Sixteen champion, meets Murray, this year’s All “A” Classic state champion, in a rematch of one of last year’s semifinals. Mercer County took that matchup, 67-60, after the Tigers jumped out to a 7-0 lead. The Titans built a double-digit lead but Murray tied the game, 49-49, with 5:09 left before Mercer County used a 10-3 run to wrestle back control.
Both teams graduated a key contributor — Maddie Waldrop for the Tigers, Lyric Houston for the Titans — but are otherwise unchanged from a season ago. Both boast three Division I signees — Murray’s Alexis Burpo, Lex Mayes and Macey Turley are headed to Murray State while Mercer’s Emma Davis (Tennessee-Martin), Seygan Robins (Louisville) and Emmy Souder (NKU) are going their separate ways after one last tournament appearance. The amount of talent on the floor, the level of play by both teams this season and the history between the two squads makes this a can’t-miss affair.
2.) Super streaks
Murray’s 24-game win streak is the best in the state. Scott County doesn’t lag far behind with its 21 consecutive victories.
Neither team has lost in the calendar year. Murray’s run includes wins over co-Sweet Sixteen challengers Clark County and Owensboro Catholic while the Cardinals have defeated title hopefuls Manual, Ryle and Simon Kenton during their stretch. Scott County also defeated potential semifinals opponent Boyd County in December.
Before the Cardinals can look forward to that hypothetical rematch, though, they’ll have to again upend Manual, which upset Sacred Heart in the 7th Region finals to make its fifth tournament appearance over the last eight years. Scott County defeated Manual, 76-53, on the road on Jan. 11, but the Crimsons’ win over the Valkyries suggests they’re peaking at the right time; they bring a 10-game win streak into the tournament.
3.) (Almost) running it back
Clark County, last year’s 10th Region champion, played 13th Region champion Harlan in the first round of last year’s state tournament.
Clark County, this year’s 10th Region champion, plays 13th Region champion Harlan County in the first round on Wednesday.
It’s not an exact rewind of last year’s matchup, but it’s not far off. The Cardinals’ starting lineup will feature four of the five players it did last season — Shemaya Behanan, Maleaha Bell, Hayley Harrison and Kennedy Igo — along with Jasmine Flowers; all are underclassmen except Behanan. The Cardinals knocked off Campbell County, the top-rated team in the state, in the semifinals of the region tournament last week.
Harlan County got out of the 13th Region for the first time in program history. Like Harlan and Jordan Brock a year ago, it features one superstar talent (Blair Green, a University of Kentucky signee who’s scored more than 3,000 points in her career) and a hard-nosed supporting cast that’s helped her grind out a plethora of wins. Carmen Cox and Phebe McHargue have doubled their scoring output from a year ago in part due to the absence of center Kaylea Gross, a senior who suffered a season-ending injury earlier this season.
4. Northern exposure
Ryle High School and Simon Kenton High School sit on opposite sides of Interstate 71 but are only 9 miles apart from each other. However, they play in separate regions.
Simon Kenton won its third 8th Region title in the last four years on Saturday after knocking off Anderson County, which was a slight favorite in the Cantrall Ratings. Ryle earned its first Sweet Sixteen berth with a victory in the 9th Region championship on Sunday, setting up a date with its northern Kentucky rival in the first round on Thursday.
The Raiders have won 14 straight games, a streak that kicked off with a 58-53 victory over Simon Kenton in the Toyota Classic on Jan. 19, their second victory against the Pioneers this season. NKU signee Ally Niece was not on the court for Simon Kenton in either contest as she was still recovering from offseason ACL surgery; she’s played in the last 13 games and was named MVP of the 8th Region Tournament over the weekend.
Ryle’s Maddie Scheer has offers from Tennessee and Kentucky and is considered the nation’s fourth-best point guard in the class of 2020 by ESPN. The 5-foot-11 sophomore has crossed 1,000 points in her career.
5.) Party crashers
All told, six teams made it into the field that “weren’t supposed to be there.”
Bowling Green, Johnson Central and Knott County Central knocked off the favorites in their respective regions in addition to Clark County, Manual and Simon Kenton.
South Warren defeated Bowling Green three times before the 4th Region Tournament, including a 39-point rout in January and a win in the 14th District finals. The Spartans appeared to be in line for victory No. 4 this season until the Purples closed the region championship on a 22-1 run to get away with a 59-51 win.
Johnson Central held Shelby Valley scoreless in the fourth quarter of the 15th Region finals to force overtime, in which Morgan Hopson hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the Golden Eagles back to the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in the last four seasons.
Knott County Central locked up its second straight appearance at NKU with a 48-45 decision over Hazard. Jada Higgins, a junior who’s committed to Eastern Kentucky University, had 19 points and 10 rebounds for the Patriots in that one.