BOWLING GREEN — Marion County spent much of December and January looking nothing like the team people thought it would be in the pre-season.
But the Lady Knights look like they are turning into that team at just the right time.
Marion used a dominant second-half defensive performance to pull away from Butler 41-26 Friday at the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen in E.A. Diddle Arena.
The Lady Knights advanced to Saturday's semifinal against Manual, a 48-36 winner over Bowling Green.
With top sophomores Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and junior Bre Elder, the Lady Knights were one of the pre-season favorites to win the state title until they lost six early-season games and dropped in the rankings.
But Marion (27-6) has now won 13 straight, and it gave up just 10 points in the second half Friday to the Bearettes.
"I think we're clicking at the right time," Marion County Coach Trent Milby said. "We played tremendous defense, the best defense we've played all year. I've said all along, it's not what you do in December and January, it's what you do in February and March."
"We got down on ourselves a lot," Epps said. "It was rough. I had my own personal doubts, but to be here is great, because we've proved everybody wrong."
Butler sagged its defense in order to keep Epps and Co. out of the paint. Instead of panicking and forcing shots, though, the Lady Knights showed patience, and while they didn't shoot a great percentage (35.7), they made timely shots and turned the ball over only seven times.
Epps, the daughter of ex-UK point guard Anthony Epps, finished with 10 points, five assists and no turnovers. Anthony Epps was on the Marion County bench barking out instructions as Milby's assistant.
Marion's surge in the final four minutes of the second quarter gave it all the separation it would need. Epps broke a 15-all tie with a short jumper in the lane and then fed Elder in transition for a layup to make it 19-15. Elder and Goodin-Rogers then hit back-to-back threes to cap a 10-1 run that sent the Lady Knights into halftime with a 25-16 lead.
The 6-foot-1 Goodin-Rogers had a pair of threes as part of her 12-point, nine-rebound game.
"She's really started to make shots from out there the last couple of weeks," Milby said. "She's confident with that shot on the right wing, and she's a big asset because she can get out there and spread the floor."
Marion County methodically padded its cushion in the second half, taking a 34-20 lead into the third quarter and never letting Butler back within single digits. Butler Coach Larry Just said consecutive threes by Elder and Goodin-Rogers were the backbreakers.
"Those two threes were huge," he said. "We were right there, but that little run before halftime clearly separated. It was a huge uphill battle for us the rest of the way trying to come out of that."
And while Just credited the Marion County defense, he also felt like his team blew some easy ones, too, finishing just 9-for-35 (25.7 percent) from the floor.
"It was one of those nights we couldn't hit shots," Just said. "Defensively, we held them to 41 points, and we felt like that would have been enough. But we just missed layups. We got shots. But never could really put any pressure on them."