Its top player sidelined and this year’s Miss Basketball winner off to a hot start, Male could have folded.
Instead the Bulldogs dug in their heels and took control against Boyd County, eventually prevailing with ease in a 74-56 decision in the first round of the 58th KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen on Thursday in Rupp Arena.
Male star Cameron Browning was ruled out for the state tournament after she was diagnosed with mononucleosis this week. Browning, a 6-foot-1 senior who’s signed with Belmont, averaged 15.3 points and 10.2 rebounds for the Bulldogs, both team-highs, and is the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,603 points.
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Senior Maya Crimes stepped up big time in her absence. Crimes, who averaged 4.8 points and 4.1 rebounds this season, delivered a double-double — 19 points and 14 rebounds — in 21 minutes of action.
Four Bulldogs finished in double-figure scoring: Destiny Combs, Joelle Johnson and Kynidi Striverson along with Crimes. Johnson, a 6-footer who’s headed to Georgia State, had 13 points, 15 rebounds and four assists while Combs ended up with 19 point and six boards. Striverson had 11 points.
“Over the years they haven’t got the credit they deserved,” Male Coach Champ Ligon said. “These girls have been working extremely hard for five years and it’s just great that they can come out on this stage and be able to perform like that. ...
“We’ve always been a great team, not great individuals, and we were on a mission today to prove that.”
The Bulldogs scored the game’s first bucket but quickly trailed, 7-4, after Miss Basketball winner Savannah Wheeler went on a personal 7-2 run for the Lions. Male responded with a 14-0 scoring punch from which Boyd County never recovered.
Wheeler hit her first two shots but missed eight straight from the field before hitting a wild layup over a defender to pull Boyd County within 28-22 late in the first half. She got loose for another layup in the final minute to help keep the Lions within six, 30-24, at the break.
Boyd twice got within five points in the third quarter — both times thanks to Harley Paynter layups — but never got closer than that in the second half.
Wheeler, who averaged a state-best 29.6 points per game this season, finished with a game-high 28 points but shot 6-for-28 from the floor. She was perfect from the free-throw line, going 14-of-14. Wheeler finished with 3,621 career points, good for sixth all-time in the KHSAA record book.
“She’s paved ways,” Boyd County Coach Pete Fraley said. “She’s the second Miss Basketball winner from the 16th Region. ... We have other kids in our program now (for whom) it’s not just a dream. They can see the hard work she’s put into it.”
Paynter, a sophomore who had 16 points, was Boyd’s only other double-digit scorer.
Boyd County as a team shot 17-of-68 from the field, 4-for-30 from the three-point line. Male took only 11 shots from beyond the arc, making one, but was 24-of-52 overall from the floor.
What: Girls’ high school basketball state tournament
When: Through Sunday
Where: Rupp Arena
Video livestream: All games available on NFHSNetwork.com (subscription required)
Tickets: $17-$21 (Available at Rupp Arena Box Office or online at Ticketmaster.com or KHSAA.org)