For The Beacon
Everything seemed poised for Boyd County to repeat as the region champion for the fourth consecutive year Saturday night at Morehead State.
The Lady Lions had defeated West Carter 78-66 one night prior in the semifinals and its opponent for the title game was one it had polished off to the tune of an 18-point thwarting in Russell. The Feb. 17 loss was the worst defeat Russell had on the season and more importantly, the second loss out of three meetings with Boyd.
Just over a minute into the title game, things looked to have gone from bad to worse as junior Kaeli Ross landed awkwardly on the floor, striking her head on the fall. However, Ross would leave the floor for less than two minutes before returning with a personal desire to take down the champs.
Ross’ first points came with 2:52 to go in the first that gave Russell a 9-5 lead. When the final horn sounded, Ross had torched the Lady Lions for a career high 33 points to lead the Lady Devils to their fifth regional crown and the second under Mandy Layne in a 75-57 win.
“I guess it knocked some sense into me,” Ross laughed when asked about the fall.
Whatever the case, Ross was seeing the basket like shooting a ball into the Grand Canyon. She finished 10 of 14 from the field and 4 of 5 from long range while adding nine points from the charity stripe.
“I told her before the game she just needed to calm down and let the game come to her,” Layne said of Ross. “She came in about an hour before the bus left today just to get in some extra shots. I was so excited to see her play so big on the big stage tonight. She’s capable of doing that every single night.”
Ross finished the first stanza with an explanation point with a triple from the wing and an 18-10 lead.
Ross picked up where she left off to start the second with a jumper from the elbow for a 20-10 lead. But Ross was not the only player stroking the long ball that night as Boyd County’s Harley Paynter sank three consecutive 3s to pull her Lions to within two at 23-21 with 5:05 left in the half.
Russell (26-8) responded with a personal 5-0 run by Ross and one of many layups by Aubrey Hill that pushed the advantage back to nine. But Boyd answered with a Bailey Rucker triple before the break to trail by only two going in.
Ross banged home two more threes out of the gate to open the third with the second forcing a Lions timeout followed by Ross screaming “Let’s go” as she celebrated with her teammates heading to the bench.
“I just wanted to win for my team,” Ross said. “All of our girls play hard, play defense. We just wanted to work our butts off and win for our coaches and for our school. We were just on a mission to win.”
Boyd County (20-12) made one final run after Audrey Biggs pulled the Lady Lions to within one with 5:24 to go in the third but two freebies by Shaelyn Steele pushed the lead back to five and Boyd County would get no closer the rest of the way.
“Bottom line, they were better tonight,” Boyd County coach Pete Fraley said. “Ross was as good as I have ever seen her. She shot lights out. Aubrey was good in the paint, lots of offensive rebounds. Steele played really well. Their other kids were solid.”
Hill was a beast in the paint for the Lady Devils, finishing with 15 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots. Russell outscored Boyd County 26-18 in the paint.
Russell would close the game on a 12-2 run with Ross sinking two free throws with 41 seconds to play before being lifted from the game as the Red Devils fans rose to their feet to celebrate the win.
“Heck yeah, baby!” Layne said before answering her first question. “This feels so awesome.”
Steele rounded out players in double figures for Russell with 17. The eighth grader missed the entire second quarter after picking up her second foul late in the first. Although going only 2 of 10 from the field, Steele hit 13 of 20 free throws and collected seven rebounds.
“I had to find a way to help my team in the second half and do whatever I could to help us win,” Steele said.
Steele joined Ross and Hill as All-Tournament Team selections for Russell. Harley Paynter, Gracie Opell, Biggs and Rucker represented Boyd County.
“Congrats to my girls Bailey, Gracie, Harley and Audrey,” Fraley said. “Wish Russell well. I know they will represent the 16th Region well at Rupp.”
Paynter led the Lady Lions with 24 points but scored only four after the break going 2 of 9 from the floor. Rucker kicked in 15.
Russell will meet Region 4 winner Bowling Green (28-6) Thursday night at 6:30 p.m.
THE ROAD TO THE FINALS
Boyd County opened with a 76-52 win over Menifee County on Monday night. Paynter led the way with 25 points and Biggs finished with 21. Rucker netted six while grabbing 10 rebounds.
Boyd led wire-to-wire thanks to a suffocating defense that forced 28 turnovers that converted into 36 Lady Lions points. Boyd recorded 24 steals in the win led by Paynter’s seven.
Boyd County tangled with West Carter in the semifinals in a back and forth matchup that once again saw the Lady Lions lead wire-to-wire in a 78-66 win.
Paynter had 29 points and 12 rebounds. Biggs added 24 and 12. Opell kicked in 10. Boyd County dominated from the opening tip with Paynter scoring 14 in the opening stanza. The Lady Lions took a 16-point lead to the locker room fueled by Biggs’ 17-point first half performance.
West Carter made one final run to open the third in which they pulled to within nine at 40-31 and eventually got the lead down to only eight after an Allie Stone jumper with 12 seconds left in the quarter made it 50-42.
Becca Nolan put the Lady Lions fans on the edge of their seats to open the fourth after a layup pulled the Lady Comets to within six. Two minutes later, Paytner drained another triple as the lead had quickly swelled back to 15.
Unlike its final’s opponent, Russell faced adversity the entire way to the championship game. Russell trailed more than it led it each of its first two games.
Russell raced out to an 8-1 lead over East Carter in the opening round Tuesday night only to watch the Lady Raiders roll off 15 straight for a 16-8 lead early in the second quarter. Ross squashed the run with a triple, but the Lady Raiders maintained a 27-19 lead at the half.
Russell looked to be a much different club to start the second half after an 8-0 run by Steele and Hill tied the game at 27-27. Kate Ruggles gave Russell its first lead since the first quarter with 2:37 to go in the third and a triple by Bella Quinn pushed the advantage back to the largest the Lady Devils had seen in the game at seven.
Alyssa Sticker finished an And-1 to open the final stanza that pulled East Carter to within one, but the Lady Raiders went cold from the field to close the contest, missing 7 of their final 8 shots while Russell hit 4 of 5.
Steele paced the Lady Devils with 20 points. Hill had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Russell had to feel like Clark Clint in “Superman” after a 48-41 defeat of Rowan County Friday. The Lady Devils had fallen to the Lady Vikings in both meetings and looked to have run into their version of kryptonite once again.
Russell trailed 22-15 at the half after playing possibly its worst half of basketball all season. Russell turned it over 15 times that led to 13 Rowan County points and failed to get to the line while watching their opponent attempt 10 free throws. Steele picked up her third foul with one minute to play in the half and Russell looked to be so out of sync a comeback with unthinkable.
Ross and Steele had different ideas. Ross netted seven of her 10 points in the third frame and Steele scored 11 of her 19 in the final 2:30 of the game to lead Russell to the win.
Rowan County used a 9-2 run before the half to open the seven-point edge but poor shooting limited their ability to push the game out of reach. Ross tied the game at 26-26 with 2:13 to go in the third but Rowan County led 37-31 with 3:35 to play.
But Steele was too tough down the stretch as she netted Russell’s final 10 points in the win.
ROWAN COUNTY 69 ASHLAND 53
Haven Ford was simply too much for Ashland to stop in the Kittens opening round matchup with Rowan County Tuesday night. The freshman dropped 24 points and snagged a game-high 17 rebounds to lead the Lady Vikings to a 69-53 win.
Ashland took a 13-9 lead with 46 seconds to play in the first on a Mikayla Martin jumper. But Rowan County closed on a 5-0 run to snatch away the lead by one after one. Ashland would never regain the lead and trailed by double figures most of the second half.
Martin led the Kittens with 18 points and 10 rebounds with 14 and eight, respectively coming in the opening half. Martin played only 2 minutes in the second half due to an undisclosed injury.
Ashland was dominated on the glass and in the paint, being outrebounded 40-28 and 40-24 in points in the paint.
Martin was named to the 16th Region All-Tournament Team. Ashland finished its season 20-11.