Marion County isn't just chasing a state title in the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls' Sweet Sixteen this week in Bowling Green.
The Knights are also chasing history.
They're trying to become the first unbeaten state champion since Marshall County in 1984, and establish a legacy as one of Kentucky's all-time greatest teams.
Marion County Coach Trent Milby said he and his players set that goal after they lost to Manual 58-54 in the state finals last year.
"At our team banquet we said we wanted to go 39-0 this season," Milby said.
"So far, so good."
Marion County (35-0), rated No. 5 in the nation by USA Today, is led by University of Kentucky signees and Miss Basketball finalists Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers. They are two reasons the Knights are prohibitive favorites to take home the championship trophy.
Marion County's average margin of victory this season is a staggering 34 points. Seven of its victories have come against Sweet Sixteen teams. It beat Bowling Green (its first-round opponent) 66-43; Madison Central twice, 66-35 and 59-37; Mercy twice (71-56 and 64-46); Manual 79-63, and Henderson County 67-40.
Besides Epps and Goodin-Rogers, Marion County relies on Norfolk State signee Logan Powell, Patrice Young, Alexus Calhoun and eighth-grader Haeli Howard.
Milby said he likes the strength and speed of his players, and their hoops IQ. "All of them are very smart basketball players. And the chemistry of this team has been outstanding."
Manual Coach Stacy Pendleton said he can't remember anybody being as overwhelming a Sweet Sixteen favorite as Marion County, not even Sacred Heart when it won three championships in a row in 2002, '03 and '04.
"Marion County is so big and physical. They have a Division I college team's physical stature that makes them very difficult to guard."
Pendleton thinks Epps is the key.
"Nobody realizes how good she is," he said. "She's one of the best I've ever seen. I think she'll shine through the next four years (at UK).
"To have a kid that fast and that strong. When she drives, she leaves people falling down in her wake."
Then there is Marion County's team-on-a-mission attitude.
"They're ticked off they lost to us last year," Pendleton said. "They have a burning desire to get back there and win that sucker."
Madison Central Coach Robbie Cooksey said Marion County will have to suffer a terrible performance to lose.
"They're so efficient on offense, and just so skilled at so many different positions," he said. "I think even if they shoot 30 percent they can still beat every team in the field. They'll have to shoot in the low 20s and have foul trouble for somebody to sneak up on them.
"I could be wrong, but I don't see anybody being within 20 points of them."
Anderson County Coach Tony Kays said when he saw Marion County play a few weeks ago, "they've got that look in their eyes, that they're hungry to get it done."
That doesn't keep other teams from looking for glory.
Anderson County takes a 24-game winning streak to Bowling Green. The Bearcats (32-1) are led by juniors Eriel McKee and Makenzie Cann.
"I like to think we're a pretty versatile team," Kays said. "We can run in an up-tempo game, and we've gotten better playing a slower, half-court game.
"And we've got depth. We play 10 kids and feel comfortable playing all of them in any situation."
Cooksey said his girls were inspired by watching Madison Central's boys win the state title last week.
The girls are led by Larryn Brooks, a Miss Basketball finalist who's headed to Indiana University, and Ashton Feldhaus, who'll play college ball at Butler.
The girls' connections to the boys' champs include Feldhaus, the daughter of boys' coach Allen Feldhaus Jr., and Shadae Bosley, whose brother Ken-Jah hit the game-winning three-pointer in the finals against Ballard.
"We're looking for our kids to come and play well," Cooksey said. "We want to survive and advance. Our goal is no different than the other 15 teams. We want to be playing Saturday night."
Pendleton, who's retiring at the end of the tournament, hopes Manual makes it to Saturday morning so he can coach again.
He picked up two technical fouls and was ejected from Manual's 62-60 region semifinal victory over Sacred Heart. He had to sit out the region finals against Assumption, and under KHSAA rules he must also sit out the first two games of the state tournament if his team advances.
"Real bummer," Pendleton said. "I pray we make it to the semifinals. I don't want my career to end like this."
Four of the five finalists for Miss Basketball are in the tournament — Epps, Goodin-Rogers, Brooks and Owensboro Catholic's Becca Greenwell, who has signed with Duke.
1. Marion Co. (35-0) 89.9
2. Notre Dame (26-5) 83.1
2. Mercy (20-10) 83.1
4. Anderson Co. (32-1) 83.0
5. Bowling Green (30-4) 82.9
6. Henderson Co. (26-2) 80.9
7. Manual (23-8) 80.2
8. Madison Central (29-4) 79.3
9. Owensboro Catholic (24-7)77.5
10. Lincoln Co. (27-5) 77.0
11. Ashland Blazer (25-6) 75.2
12. Letcher Central (29-5) 75.0
13. Montgomery Co. (28-6) 73.9
14. Marshall Co. (26-9) 73.4
15. Shelby Valley (28-4) 71.1
16. Corbin (27-8) 69.8
When: Wednesday through Saturday
Where: E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green
Radio: WVLK-FM 101.5
Video: All games live on Kentucky.com through iHigh.com
Tournament bracket: Page C4