For The Beacon
Sometimes fate has a funny way of working itself out.
The Russell Lady Devils were destined for Rupp Arena last year after a 16th region championship win over Boyd County.
Their trip ended prematurely just before Russell was set to hit the floor in Lexington due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, history repeated itself.
The Lady Devils again bested Boyd County in the region final and earned themselves a return trip to Rupp.
“I was just so happy for them,” Russell coach Mandy Layne said. “I mean it was devastating last year, and you never know if you’re going to get back or not.
“For them to work as hard as they did and for them to get to play two games there, I’m just so happy and it was so special for them and they made lifetime memories.”
Their trip was not just for show, though.
Russell left Lexington with their first win in the state tournament since 1976 with a 58-44 win over Dixie Heights in the opening round.
The Lady Devils ultimately fell in the final eight in a loss to Henderson County.
Both teams did not shy away from the big stage and bright lights as Russell took on Dixie Heights.
Each side finished the first frame of play shooting 50 percent or better from the floor, with the Lady Devils hitting their shots at a 66.7 percent clip.
Coach Layne and company shuffled through their defensive sets early on before ultimately settling on a man-to-man.
“We did a really nice job on our man and we did it without fouling, and we were able to keep them out of the lane and we were able to block some shots which I think kept them off balance,” Layne said. “We did a really good job contesting their threes.”
The Colonels spent their time defensively trying to plan a way to slow down freshman guard Shaelyn Steele.
Steele finished with an impressive stat line, posting 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting with six rebounds, three assists, and six blocks.
“She likes big games,” Layne said of Steele. “I thought we were really focused that first game and really prepared.
“She’s one of the best point guards in the state, and she has three more years to play which is a little scary to think about honestly. She’s had so much success already.”
Senior Aubrey Hill also shined.
Hill had a team-high 22 points and nine boards on a highly effective 10-for-12 night from the floor.
Layne said Hill did nothing but improve over her career in a variety of facets, citing her ability to finish and post-up angles as one of those areas.
“A lot of people tried to front her and we did a lot better job this year of lobbing the ball over to her,” Layne said. “Most importantly though, her defense and rebounding.
“Her ability to protect the rim and her ability to really dominate in games when we really needed that big rebounder, she just stepped up so big for us.”
Jenna Adkins added 11 points and Kaeli Ross had seven in the contest.
Russell settled in from that hot shooting side from both clubs in the first quarter and locked in defensively on their way to the win.
When it came time to play Henderson County, foul troubles, a third quarter injury, and a slow start were too much for Russell to overcome in the elite eight.
The Lady Devils had a lot of ground to make up through one quarter, trailing 25-9 at the end of one.
However, they would pull to within six at the half and had trimmed the deficit down to three on a late Ross jumper before the break.
In the second half, that margin became just too tall for a variety of factors.
“We stayed in foul trouble so we didn’t get to do defensively what we wanted to do,” Layne said.“Jenna [Adkins] went down with about three minutes to go in the third quarter, and after that they made a little run on us and she was out for the rest of the game.”
Ross tried to will her team from behind with her 22 points and big-time baskets.
“We needed somebody to step up and she really got going there,” Layne said. “She did everything she could on both ends of the floor.
“We had a possibility in those last couple seconds to pull within two points, and it was really just her stepping up and hitting big shot after big shot trying to keep the team pumped up and she did a really good job leading the team.”
In the end, Russell would fall by a score of 64-53.
For the Lady Devils, it was their first win on the state tournament stage in 45 years.
Alyssa Maynard, Hill, and Ross depart from the program as seniors. Hill and Ross were members of the team for three region championships in their careers.
“All three of them had a winning mentality and like I told them in the locker room, they’re the most successful group to come through Russell since 1976,” Layne said. “I just felt like I had a really good rapport and relationship with them, we’ll really miss their leadership.”
Layne added they will always be revered in Russell lore.
“I’m just really proud of the legacy that they’re going to leave because let’s be honest they’re going to be remembered forever,” Layne said.
Hill will continue her career at Denison University, while Ross will play in college at Rio Grande.