High School Sports

Sixteen questions entering the girls’ basketball Sweet Sixteen

Could Miss Basketball finalists Princess Stewart of Franklin County, left, and Jaelynn Penn of Butler, right, be headed toward a state championship game rematch?
Could Miss Basketball finalists Princess Stewart of Franklin County, left, and Jaelynn Penn of Butler, right, be headed toward a state championship game rematch? AP

The St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA girls’ Sweet Sixteen tips off Wednesday. The 2017 state champion will be revealed after 15 games over the next five days.

This year’s edition is the 56th girls’ basketball state tournament, and the 43rd since the KHSAA began sanctioning the sport again in the 1974-75 school year. Let’s tackle some questions.

1. Will a loaded bracket stop Butler?

The defending state champion Bearettes have been the top-rated team in Dave Cantrall’s Rating the State for much of the season, and that’s the case heading into Wednesday’s tip-off against Sacred Heart, the second-ranked team in the field and one of only two teams to beat Butler all season.

All but one team in the top half of the bracket rates in the 80s on Cantrall’s scale (Harlan is 14th overall at 71.4). Murray (No. 4) or Nelson County (No. 8) would be waiting for Butler in the quarterfinals. Mercer County, the favorite to see Butler in the semifinals, is ranked third. If the rankings hold, Butler’s “easiest” game would be in the finals against No. 5 Simon Kenton.

2. Can Sacred Heart continue a trend?

Since 2001, nine of the girls’ state champs have hailed from Louisville. Also since that year, nine of the girls’ titles were won by private schools. Sacred Heart, which won three titles from 2002-2004 but is in the field for just the second time since that stretch, could add marks to both columns.

3. Will Franklin County break through?

Only one public school out of the 11th Region has won a girls’ state title: Henry Clay in 1990. The Flyers, rated sixth overall, have a favorable road to return to the finals, where they lost to Butler last season.

4. Does Jordan Brock have another record in her?

Harlan senior Jordan Brock, a Miss Basketball candidate who has signed with Tennessee Tech, averages 3.6 makes from long range. She broke the All “A” Classic three-point record this season after making eight in the finals. Seven girls have made four in the Sweet Sixteen.

Chris Ware | staff

5. Can Grayson County or Paintsville make more history?

Grayson, ranked 13th in the field, and Paintsville, rated 15th, would be the first teams from their regions to win a girls’ title.

The Cougars, who upended Apollo, 39-36, for the 3rd Region berth, are in the field for the first time. Paintsville, which defeated Johnson Central by the same score in the 15th Region finals, made it for the first time since 1932, the final year before the KHSAA dropped the sport.

6. Will Russell County ride momentum?

The Lakers toppled Monroe County, ranked in the top 20 and the All “A” Classic champ, in the 4th Region finals. They’re ranked 12th in the field and open against Franklin County on Thursday.

7. Is this Henderson County’s year?

This is the 11th time in the last 13 seasons Henderson County will represent the 2nd Region. The Colonels have played in the semifinals twice during their run (three times in program history) and have never reached the finals.

8. Can a fresh face make noise?

Nelson County (first tournament in 27 years) is one of three teams in the field to have won 30 or more games and handled perennial contender Elizabethtown in the 5th Region finals. The Cardinals survived a rocky January during which their head coach resigned following an altercation with an assistant. Former East Jessamine coach Jacqueline Coleman took over on an interim basis.

9. How will Murray fare?

The Tigers, a favorite to win it all coming into the winter, are tough to pin down. They took care of business out west but didn’t perform well against top-20 competition this season. Star senior Maddie Waldrop was out early, though, and has averaged 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds since her return from offseason knee surgery.

10. Can Holmes make a run?

The Bulldogs brought back three players who saw the floor in their tight quarterfinals loss to Mercer County a year ago. Holmes will be favored into the semifinals and will be the hometown favorite as it plays on the same court where it won the 9th Region finals on Sunday.

11. Is Clark County prepared?

Clark County lost to Nelson County, 54-52 in December, in its only look at a Sweet Sixteen team this season. The Cardinals played only two other teams that were in the final top 25 heading into the postseason, Mason County and Conner. They went 1-2 in those games, defeating Mason County in the 10th Region finals after a tight loss in January.

12. Will fans get to see Miss Basketball?

Of the 18 girls who were named finalists for Miss Basketball this season, only four are in the tournament: Jordan Brock (Harlan), Alisha Owens (Henderson County), Jaelynn Penn (Butler) and Princess Stewart (Franklin County). Penn was considered the frontrunner for the award, to be given on Tuesday, coming into the season. Voting ended Feb. 24.

13. Who is Savannah Wheeler?

She’s the sophomore averaging 21.7 points for Boyd County, which upset East Carter to make the field for the first time since 2011. Wheeler has committed to Marshall University.

14. What is the must-see session of the first round?

Easily the first one on day one, which features a twin billing of Sacred Heart-Butler and Murray-Nelson County. That’s four top-eight teams squaring off in the first three to four hours of the tournament. Yowza!

15. Can NKU keep the tournament long-term?

BB&T Arena hosted its first girls’ Sweet Sixteen last year, following 15 years of the ladies playing at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena. Northern Kentucky University’s facility drew the fifth-largest crowd in tournament history last season but KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett expressed concern about local community support after that event. The site agreement will go up for bid again this year.

16. Why should I go watch?

Because intrigue is abundant; was that not already clear?

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

Girls’ Sweet Sixteen

What: Single-elimination state basketball tournament involving 16 regional champions

When: Wednesday-Sunday

Where: BB&T Arena in Highland Heights

Cantrall Ratings

Dave Cantrall’s Rating the State rankings for teams in the Girls’ Sweet Sixteen:

1. Butler (32-2) 89.1

2. Sacred Heart (29-5) 86.7

3. Mercer Co. (27-6) 86.5

4. Murray (26-5) 86.2

5. Simon Kenton (27-6) 85.9

6. Franklin Co. (30-5) 85.2

7. Clark Co. (29-4) 81.7

8. Nelson Co. (30-3) 81.2

9. Holmes (26-5) 80.9

10. Boyd Co. (26-8) 80.7

11. Henderson Co. (27-5) 80.6

12. Russell Co. (25-8) 74.0

13. Grayson Co. (21-10) 72.0

14. Harlan (27-8) 71.4

15. Paintsville (28-4) 69.2

16. Knott Central (28-6) 67.3