Joelle Johnson received a pregame message from her mom before her team, Male, tipped off against Barren County in the girls’ state tournament on Friday.
“My mom always tells me I’m a little soft,” Johnson said. “She texted me before the game and she’s like, ‘You need to go out there and do something.’”
She did something, all right. Johnson scored a game-high 24 points and her Bulldogs fended off Barren County, 63-49, to advance in the 58th KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen. They’ll play in Saturday’s second semifinal game against either North Laurel or Southwestern, who met in Friday’s late quarterfinal game.
That will be Male’s third trip to the semifinals in five total appearances at the Sweet Sixteen. The Bulldogs have never played in the championship; they fell to Highlands, 59-48, in the 1994 semis, and to eventual champion Covington Holy Cross, 47-37, in the same round in 2015, their last time at state.
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For the second straight game Male was without Cameron Browning, its leading scorer (15.3 points per game) and rebounder (10.2) who was ruled unavailable for the state tournament after being diagnosed with mononucleosis earlier this week.
Johnson, a Georgia State signee, scored 15 points in the first half. She was 10 of 14 from the field and also had 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“Sometimes I fail to realize how good I can be if I work a little harder, and I feel like when I do, I bring energy to my team,” Johnson said. “So I feel like that spread.”
Male quickly built a double-digit lead, 14-2, and eventually took a 10-point edge into the locker room at halftime. The Bulldogs led wire-to-wire; Barren County got within five points twice — in the final seconds of the third quarter and midway through the fourth — but was unable to get closer in the second half. McKenzie England, a senior, led Barren County with 16 points.
“I thought from the start we struggled a little bit to score,” Trojanettes Coach Piper Lindsey said. “Their defense is obviously pretty tough. We missed some easy shots but, a credit to these girls, we could have folded in the first quarter and just kind of let it go, walk off the court and say, ‘It was a 30-point deficit.’ But we didn’t.”
Male (24-7) went 15 of 22 from the free-throw line. Eleven of those makes were in the fourth quarter — five by Kynidi Striverson and four by Alana Striverson — as Barren County sent the Bulldogs to the line to try and keep it within reach.
Maya Crimes again came up huge starting in place of Browning. The senior put up 10 points and 11 rebounds, her second double-double in as many nights. Browning traveled with the team to Lexington.
“I like how even though we did lose Cam, she’s still here. She’s still helping support us, she’s still our biggest fan,” Kynidi Striverson said. “… I’m glad that Maya is getting the opportunity to step up and show what she can do. Since she is filling in well, I feel really good about our chances still.”