For a while Thursday night, it looked like North Laurel was the only team to get off the bus in its opening round game of the 58th KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena.
The Jaguars led 19-4 after a quarter, surprising maybe everyone but their coach.
“It seems like every time we’ve had challenges through the postseason or even toward the end of the season, we’ve stepped up,” Coach Eddie Mahan Jr. said. “For them to come in here and overcome their nerves and come out as well as they did is not a surprise to me at all. ... This team is different. This team is fearless in many ways.”
Although Henderson County finally responded to make it a game, at least in the second quarter, it was the first-time 13th Region champs who moved on to Friday’s quarterfinals with a 66-43 rout of the perennial 2nd Region title-holders.
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“We got off to a bad start,” Henderson Coach Jeff Haile said. “We finally got back into the ball game and we started missing the open looks that probably could have gotten us even closer. But that’s the way it goes.”
Emily Sizemore led North Laurel with 20 points, while 6-4 center Raegan Hubbard added 15 and Gracie Jervis 12. Emilee Hope led Henderson with 19 points.
North Laurel, making its first ever trip to the Sweet Sixteen, calmly executed its offense from the outset. The Jaguars got seven points from Hubbard and six from Sizemore during the first-quarter run as Henderson flailed from the field with only one field goal on 10 attempts.
“I was nervous at first, just like any player would be, but once we got in there, we were focused and we showed everybody what we could do,” Hubbard said. “We just can’t wait for tomorrow.”
The Colonels climbed out of the huge hole they dug in the second period thanks to a full-court press and back-to-back three-pointers from Graci Risley and Hope. Combined with another six straight points on two Hope layups sandwiched around a make by Katie Rideout, it made for a 19-7 Henderson run that trimmed the Jags’ advantage to just five points, 28-23, with 2:40 to go before halftime.
“Their players aren’t going to go away. They are a championship type of club and well coached,” Mahan said. “We really prepped for them and made sure we found shooters early on, but in the second quarter we stopped doing that.”
Henderson went into halftime down just 33-25 and with reason for optimism after having outscored the Jags 21-14 in the second period.
But in the third, North Laurel asserted itself again with a 7-0 run that extended the margin back to 16 when Isabel Gray’s three made it 48-32 at the 1:32 mark. Henderson got no closer than 10 the rest of the way.
“We refocused at halftime and came back with the right game plan and executed well,” Mahan said.
Next up, North Laurel faces a familiar foe in Southwestern. The Jaguars have played the Warriors each of the last two seasons, losing this year’s regular-season contest 63-54 on Feb. 2.
“My kids have kind of grown up playing against those same (Southwestern) players since probably elementary school,” Mahan said. “I don’t think I have to do a lot of game prep for tomorrow’s game, which is a good thing, since you only have 20 hours or something to go.”