High School Basketball

Sweet Sixteen rookies shock Louisville stalwart to reach state championship game

Photo slideshow: 2019 Girls’ Sweet Sixteen semifinals

Photos from the 2019 KHSAA Girls' Sweet Sixteen semifinals played on March 16, 2019.
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Photos from the 2019 KHSAA Girls' Sweet Sixteen semifinals played on March 16, 2019.

Will the girls’ state basketball champion for a third straight season hail from the 12th Region? Southwestern sure hopes so.

The Warriors defeated Male, 52-42, Saturday night in the semifinals of the 58th KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen. They’ll take on Ryle, a 55-43 winner earlier over Owensboro Catholic, in the championship at 2 p.m. Sunday in Rupp Arena.

Mercer County won the last two girls’ titles out of the 12th Region. Southwestern will look to keep it in the region and end the program’s first trip ever to the state tournament on the best note it possibly could.

Many prognosticators expected the winner between Boyd County and Male — two of the state’s top five teams who met in the first round on Thursday — to walk to the final. Male got the better of Boyd and Barren County but could not match Southwestern, the only other top-five program in the bottom half of the bracket before the tournament began.

Southwestern Coach Stephen Butcher II fought back tears as he reflected on his team’s path to this opportunity, forged over his six years at the helm. Southwestern against 12th Region foes during Butcher’s tenure is 79-13, bettered only by Mercer County — which eliminated the Warriors in his first four years — over that time.

“In case you don’t know, they’re pretty good. They won two state titles,” Butcher said. “Everybody else in the 12th Region in my six years, we’ve lost no more than one time to anybody. Casey County beat us once, that was last year in the regional tournament. Pulaski County beat us once. Boyle County’s beat us once. Lincoln County beat us once and everybody thought that they were the greatest thing in the world and we were nobody.

“A month ago we were ranked fifth in our own region. Now, that’s fine, not everybody has to believe in us. As long as these three right here and those 13 in there do, and those people coming every night, we’re gonna be A-OK.”

Southwestern led most of the way after jumping out to a 6-0 lead a little more than two minutes into the game. Male scored four points in a 12-second span — a Makya Grinter layup quickly followed up by free throws by Alana Striverson off a Destiny Combs steal — to go up by one with 51 seconds left in the third quarter. A pair of free throws by Alexa Smiddy put the Warriors on top again just seven seconds into the fourth; those ignited a 13-0 run to begin the period, which kept the Bulldogs’ rally at bay.

Kallie Sheron led Southwestern with 16 points and seven rebounds. Regi Cundiff had 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting, including a 3-pointer from the corner with about four minutes left to put the Warriors back up double digits.

The Warriors connected on more than half of their shots — 18 of 33 (54.5 percent)— while holding Male to a 14 of 44 clip from the field (31.8 percent).

Kynidi Striverson had 16 points to lead Male. She was 5-for-10 from the field and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc, all three coming in the first half against Southwestern’s zone. The Bulldogs were 4-for-17 from long distance; Southwestern, which made 12 of 25 triple tries in the quarterfinals, attempted only seven against Male, making three.

“I told our kids in the locker room, we’re probably the only team in the country that can make 12 threes one night and come back 24 hours later and willingly only take eight,” Butcher said. “We knew that we didn’t have the legs. We knew that that wasn’t gonna be our key to victory, and to be that committed to pass up shots and continually attack says a lot about my kids, and I’m so proud of ’em.”

Southwestern now will try to knock off Ryle, the 9th Region champion and the winner of this year’s Louisville Invitational Tournament. The Raiders boast two of the state’s top players in Lauren Schwartz — a Rice signee who was a finalist for Miss Basketball — and Maddie Scherr, a nationally-ranked junior who’s being recruited by Kentucky, Louisville and Oregon, among many others.

The Warriors have nothing to lose.

“We figured out a long time ago that they weren’t going to shoot the loser, they weren’t going to kick us out of the house,” Butcher said. “I told ‘em before we come up here, I said, ‘Look, we may go up there and get beat in the first round, 30 points, a running clock and be an embarrassment. Guess what? When that game’s over, I’m gonna give you all a hug, we’re gonna get on that bus as a family and when we come home, we’re gonna be loved and we’re gonna be 12th Region champions and anybody can’t ever take that away from you. And you know what? If living in Somerset, Kentucky, is the worst thing that happens to you after losing in the state tournament, then pity for you. We’ll be OK.’

“And they just said, ‘Y’know what, OK.’ So we’ve been saying one more, one more, one more, and now it’s down to just one more. Do we have it in us? I don’t know. I’ll take my chances.”