Elizabethtown entered the most recent girls’ Sweet Sixteen with a 32-2 record and expectations of bringing home the program’s second championship.
The Panthers were knocked off by an upstart Covington Holy Cross in the quarterfinals by a single point. The Indians finished as champions while Etown was off the court left wondering “What if?”
Again Elizabethtown, ranked No. 1 in the preseason, is expected to perform at a championship-level. It looked the part of title favorite as it dismantled No. 9 Bowling Green 67-50 in the semifinals of the Traditional Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic on Tuesday. The Panthers, who improved to 9-0, led by as many as 30 in the second half and never trailed against the Purples, who dropped their first game and were held to under 60 points for the first time this season.
Etown will meet No. 3 Butler, 8-0 after defeating Mercy 60-37 in the second semifinal, in Wednesday’s finals.
Erin Boley, a Miss Basketball candidate who’s signed with Notre Dame, said rankings are of no concern to the Panthers. “We’re worried about us and how we can get better,” she said. “Today, we definitely got better.”
An aspect in which the Panthers have improved over the course of the season, Coach Tim Mudd said, is their ability to spread the ball around the perimeter and not force up bad shots for the sake of putting up shots. Patience was on display the entire evening against Bowling Green, exemplified by a pass-heavy sequence in the third quarter which ended in a lightly contested three-point swish from Boley.
“We didn’t look like that early on,” Mudd said. “ ... As far as our ball movement and making the defense have to work some, we’ve been doing a much better job of that.”
Boley last season became the only player in Etown girls’ history to surpass 2,000 points. She’s averaging a double-double with 27.1 points and 11.1 rebounds as a senior. The 6-2 forward, rated fifth in the nation by ESPN, is beginning to float out to the wing more. She likes that because she’ll be on the perimeter more when she gets to Notre Dame, where she’s considering a major in business. She’s shooting 67 percent from the field and 52 percent from behind the arc.
“I think my biggest strength is that I can play from the inside and move out to the perimeter as well,” Boley said. “ ... This year I think my confidence level with my shooting has definitely gone up.”
Boley came close to realizing a championship dream as a sophomore. She led Etown with 18 points and 10 rebounds in a 49-38 title-game loss to Butler in 2014. Etown lost three seniors from last year’s squad to graduation, two of whom were their leading scorers after Boley. Jada Stinson, a junior with several offers including Western Kentucky, and Rachel Warden, a senior who’s signed with Tampa, have upped their scoring averages from a season ago and complement Boley’s presence. They all remember the one-point ousting from the Sweet Sixteen, too.
“For the girls that played on that team last year, I think it’s definitely a huge motivation for us,” Boley said. “The state championship is our goal just like it was last year.”
Mudd enjoys playing in events like the TBHC because the field and format — five games in five days — serve as good preparation for how the Sweet Sixteen will look.
“It’s a quick turnaround and you don’t get much preparation for the other team,” he said. “It didn’t really help us much last year but hopefully it’ll pay dividends this year. ... I think there are some intangible things you can get from playing back-to-back in a deal like this.”
Following their runaway win over Bowling Green, Mudd said his team can be special this year — something he wouldn’t have said even three weeks ago. Boley, Stinson, Warden and senior Taylor Thomas are accustomed to having a target on their back; the younger players are just beginning to figure out how to play in the spotlight.
“I’m seeing a real team starting to develop and when you’re a real team you can do some special things,” Mudd said. “Time will tell. Hopefully we’ll keep improving.”
Elizabethtown 67, Bowling Green 50
Bowling Green (9-1) — Morrow 14, Matthews 2, Gray 2, Mimms 1, DeWalt 6, Turner 13, Moore 4, Hunter 8.
Elizabethtown (9-0) — Stinson 18, Warden 13, Thomas 9, Boley 24, Deaton 3.
Championship game at Lexington Catholic
3:30 p.m. — Elizabethtown vs. Butler in Bueter Gym