As the girls’ basketball Sweet Sixteen tips off Wednesday, the most significant note for those just now tuning in is that the tournament has moved from Western Kentucky University’s Diddle Arena to BB&T Arena on the campus of Northern Kentucky University. It will be the first KHSAA basketball state tournament in Northern Kentucky, and ends WKU’s 15-year streak of hosting the event.
BB&T Arena opened in 2008 and originally was known as The Bank of Kentucky Center. It’s no stranger to big events: the facility hosted the NCAA Division II men’s Elite Eight — the equivalent to the Division I men’s Final Four — in 2012 and has hosted every boys’ and girls’ 9th Region Tournament since 2009.
NKU is committed to keeping the Sweet Sixteen in Highland Heights. Matthew Merchant, director of booking and marketing for the arena, said the university was willing to pay for the tournament even before St. Elizabeth Healthcare came aboard as the title sponsor. “It was our goal to bring a state championship up to Northern Kentucky,” Merchant said. “ ... We just didn’t want to bring it up here to say we had a championship. We want to bring it up here for the long term.”
▪ Four teams are making repeat appearances. Elizabethtown, Franklin County, Henderson County and Mercer County all reached the big dance a season ago.
In Elizabethtown’s third straight appearance, the Panthers enter the tournament as the favorite to win their second title in program history. Eventual state champion Covington Holy Cross — absent from this year’s tournament — defeated Elizabethtown in the quarterfinals last season. Miss Basketball finalist Erin Boley, also a finalist for Naismith national player of the year, averages 24.4 points (best among tournament players) and 10.7 rebounds. The 6-foot-2 forward is shooting 60.1 percent from the floor and nearly 50 percent from three-point territory.
Franklin County and Mercer County are also among the top contenders. The Flyers feature a senior-laden group led by WKU signee Malaka Frank, but its top two scorers are juniors Rebecca Cook and Princess Stewart. The Flyers defeated E-town at home last month but fell at Mercer County. Seygan Robins, who has an offer from UK, headlines a stellar class of 2018 for the Titans — five of the team’s top six scorers are sophomores.
Getting to state is old hat for Henderson County; this will be the Colonels’ fourth straight trip and their 11th in the past 13 years. They’ve won at least one game in five of those appearances.
▪ Shelby Valley, Franklin County’s first-round opponent, graduated five of its top six players from last season but returns to the state tournament after back-to-back appearances in 2013 and 2014. Lakyn Mullins averages team-highs of 16.7 ppg and 7.6 rpg while shooting nearly 60 percent from the field.
▪ Trimble County upset Simon Kenton in the 8th Region finals to reach its first Sweet Sixteen since 1981, the longest streak ended by any of this year’s participants. The Raiders lost six of nine at one point during the season but are as hot as anyone coming in after winning 11 straight.
▪ Campbell County, Trimble’s first-round opponent, lost to Scott by a point at home in January before flipping the script on the Eagles in the 10th Region finals. The Camels dominated, 62-45, one night after surviving a 73-71 overtime battle with Clark County.
▪ Leslie County and Russell also ended long streaks without a Sweet Sixteen appearance. Leslie County advanced for the first time since 1986, and the Eagles will look to avoid going 0-4 in state-tournament trips when they play Mercer County on Wednesday.
Russell knocked off favorite East Carter in the 16th Region finals. The Red Devils beat the Raiders in December before falling by 36 on the road. Maggie Jachimczuk and Madison Darnell combined for 30 points to spur the upset in the rubber match. Cari Jachimczuk, Maggie’s mom, played for Russell when it last made the Sweet Sixteen in 1994. Maggie enters averaging 16 points and a tournament-best 11 rebounds.
▪ Holmes, one of the area favorites up north, ended the season on a nine-game win streak. Last year’s champion isn’t in the field, but the Bulldogs kept alive hopes of bringing a second straight title to Covington despite trailing much of the game against Ryle in the 9th Region finals Saturday. Jynea Harris, who averages a team-high 14.6 ppg, hit a pair of free throws to give Holmes its second lead of the game, and first since the opening quarter, with 52.3 seconds left.
▪ Harlan and Owensboro Catholic met in the semifinals of the All “A” Classic in January, with the Aces upending the Dragons 52-32. Harlan returns to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 1998 and 1999; Owensboro Catholic last made it in 2013 with current Duke standout Rebecca Greenwell. Both rank in the middle of the pack, according to the Cantrall Ratings, and feature dynamic backcourts, making this one of several intriguing first-round matchups Thursday.
▪ Thursday is when the bottom half of the bracket — aka, the wild, wild west — begins play. Harlan is the only team in the lower part of the bracket not from the 1st through 7th Regions. The Dragons hail from the 13th Region; they should have requested a first-round swap with 8th Region winner Trimble County to ensure an East vs. West finals.
The top four remaining girls’ teams converge in the lower half, with No. 3 Murray and No. 4 Manual set to face off to open Thursday. This is trip No. 10 for the Crimsons; Murray competes for the third time. No. 2 Butler gets a date with No. 8 Bowling Green. That winner probably will face No. 1 E-town, which opens with No. 11 Henderson County. The Panthers defeated both of their potential quarterfinal opponents by double digits in the Republic Bank Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic in December.
▪ Mercer County played six games against teams in the tournament, the most of any school in the field. The Titans were 3-3 in those contests, which includes two losses to Butler. The other loss was to Bowling Green. Mercer couldn’t meet either of those teams until the Sweet Sixteen finals.
Franklin County and Butler each went 4-1 against teams in the field. The Flyers’ only loss was to Mercer County, whom they could meet in the semifinals. Franklin County is the only team in the field to have beaten No. 1 E-town in the regular season. Butler’s only loss involving a tournament team was to the Panthers.
Murray went 2-0 against Owensboro Catholic, the only tournament team it played in the regular season, including a 17-point victory in the finals of the All “A” Classic. Holmes defeated Campbell County in its only game against a tournament foe. The Camels were 0-3 against tournament competition.
Is Manual the most overrated team in the field? The Crimsons went 0-3 against fellow tournament squads. Devil’s advocate: Two of those losses (Franklin County and Mercer County) were by three points each and occurred before February. Manual also beat its fair share of top 25 teams in the regular season, including 7th Region favorite Male in the title game.
▪ Every state title game since 2000 has included at least one private school or a school from Louisville. If the rankings hold to form through the finals, Elizabethtown and Franklin County would end that streak in Highland Heights. There are no private schools or Louisville schools in the top half of the bracket.
Coincidentally, 2000 was the last year the tournament was held somewhere other than Diddle Arena. West Carter defeated Shelby County 58-50 in EKU’s Alumni Coliseum.
Girls’ Sweet Sixteen
When: March 9-13
Where: NKU’s BB&T Arena, Highland Heights
Tickets: $13-$35 per session at gate; parking $5 daily
Dave Cantrall’s Rating the State points for the girls’ Sweet Sixteen teams:
1. Elizabethtown 88.6
2. Butler 86.0
3. Murray 85.9
4. Manual 85.1
5. Franklin County 83.0
5. Holmes 83.0
7. Mercer County 82.2
8. Bowling Green 81.8
9. Owensboro Catholic 81.3
10. Campbell County 90.5
11. Henderson County 76.0
12. Harlan 74.3
13. Shelby Valley 70.6
14. Russell 70.4
15. Trimble County 70.1
16. Leslie County 62.6