RICHMOND — Overlooked and unranked in the pre-season, Paul Laurence Dunbar's girls gave a "look-at-me-now" performance in winning the 11th Region title on Sunday.
Showing the never-quit attitude they've played with all season, the Bulldogs rallied from 15 points down to oust defending champion Madison Central 75-60 in EKU's McBrayer Arena.
Dunbar, whose only other region title came in 1997, advances to the Sweet Sixteen to play No. 5 Boone County on Wednesday afternoon in Bowling Green.
"Nobody believed they could do it except this group of kids right here," said first-year Dunbar Coach Sarah Van Horn. "They started talking about this at the beginning of the year, and we jumped on the bandwagon, and here we are, region champs."
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Kierra Muhammad, who helped to spark the Bulldogs' comeback in the finals, couldn't contain her glee.
"To be the first (Dunbar girls' team) to win the region since 1997, oh my gosh, it's just amazing."
Madison Central, No. 12 in the state, was in total control as it rolled to a 36-21 lead late in the first half behind Ashton Feldhaus' 15 points. No. 11 Dunbar got the last basket before the break and went to the locker room down by 13.
Van Horn didn't sugarcoat her words for her players at halftime. "I told them, 'This is a test. Are you going to lay down and let them whip you, or are you going to challenge yourselves to battle back?'"
The Bulldogs' answer was their inspired play in the third quarter when they blitzed Madison Central 24-4.
"We played desperate basketball. We played with passion and desire," said 5-foot-10 junior Lakeena Parks, who had 14 of her 18 points and seven of her eight rebounds in the second half and earned tournament MVP honors.
Morgan McEldowney, the lone senior in the Dunbar lineup, said the team's sense of panic spurred it to play harder. "We didn't want it to end here. I think we wanted it more."
Van Horn credited the Bulldogs' pressure defense for turning the game around and avenging a loss to the Indians in the regular-season finale.
"I'm always preaching defense, and we got a lot of stops in the third quarter and that rattled Madison Central. We finally got to them."
After making only five turnovers in the first half, the Indians had 10 in the second.
Madison Central Coach Robbie Cooksey said his team didn't defend the Bulldogs in transition like it did in the first half, "and it came back to bite us. And they hit some big shots, some big threes, and we weren't able to recover."
Leading the Dunbar charge were 5-2 junior guards Muhammad and Jordin Fender.
Muhammad finished with 18 points, including 16 of 19 free throws, seven rebounds, five assists and five steals.
Fender had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists.
"They play big a lot bigger than 5-2," Van Horn said. "They just work so hard."
Once Dunbar grabbed the lead, it never let go.
"Once we put our foot to the pedal, we keep going," said McEldowney, who hit four of seven three-pointers and had 13 points and six rebounds.
Madison Central was led by junior point guard Larryn Brooks' 21 points, six rebounds and four assists. Feldhaus, also a junior, had 20 points and nine rebounds.
The Indians won 22 of their last 24 games, with the only other loss coming to No. 1 Manual.
"We didn't want it to end like this, but we were 28-5 and had a good season," Cooksey said. "I'm proud of the kids and how they played."
MADISON CENTRAL (28-5) — Brooks 7-22 6-7 21, Feldhaus 8-18 1-2 20, Congleton 2-3 1-1 5, A. Hinkle 1-6 0-0 3, Minter 2-4 2-2 6, Miller 2-4 0-0 5. Totals 22-57 10-12 60.
PAUL DUNBAR (28-6) — McEldowney 4-12 1-2 13, Parks 7-12 4-8 18, Todd 3-5 0-0 6, Fender 5-9 4-8 14, Muhammad 1-6 16-19 18, Edwards 3-8 0-1 6, Jackson 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 23-54 25-38 75.
Madison Central 20 16 4 20—60
Paul Dunbar 15 8 24 28—75
All-tournament: Lakeena Parks (MVP), Kierra Muhammad, Lexus Edwards, Shakeema Jackson of Dunbar; Larryn Brooks, Ashton Feldhaus, Kristin Congleton of Madison Central; Serena Sandusky, Victoria McCoy of Bryan Station; Chelsey Ford, Catie Fletcher of Woodford County; Tereka Guyn of Scott County; Raven Timmons of Franklin County; Octavia Wilson of Lexington Catholic.