Even if Cinderella stories are what captivate basketball observers during March, there’s no room to complain with Ashland and East Carter facing off in tonight’s 16thRegion Tournament final, either.
The first time the Lady Raiders, ranked eighth in Kentucky by the Associated Press, and the two-time defending region champion Kittens faced off this season, East Carter coach Hager Easterling likened the game to a heavyweight boxing match.
That’s what fans should figure to see tonight, not only because that’s the oft-used simile or metaphor for a contest between expected contenders, but because East Carter and Ashland have both displayed a willingness and ability to win physical basketball games when necessary.
The Kittens slogged through a 49-45 defeat of Lewis County in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, then powered to a 57-39 victory against Fleming County in the semifinals on Wednesday.
Toughness, physicality and intestinal fortitude helped Ashland win those games. Coach Bill Bradley has suggested at times this season the Kittens needed to “get a little meaner” too, and he said they have begun to show that.
Easterling, for his part, said Ashland will present a physical challenge for his team, specifically mentioning Haley-Sue Foutch’s work inside.
“It’s gonna be a big key because that’s what kept them in the game over at Ashland last time we played, was offensive rebounding,” Easterling said. “They just killed us on the offensive glass. A lot of times in the postseason it is who plays the most physical that does win.”
The Lady Raiders are guard-oriented and shot 26 3-pointers in their 51-38 defeat of Russell in the semifinals Thursday. But that doesn’t mean they’re soft.
“They’re so well-rounded,” Bradley said. “They all shoot 3s, they all can handle the ball, they’re very smart (and) they’re the most experienced team in the region right now.”
Despite its relative lack of size – aside from Kelsey Stumbo, the only listed center on its roster – East Carter can play sticky pressure defense, which has gotten Bradley’s attention.
“Lewis and Fleming are very physical teams, and they’ll get after you,” the Ashland coach said. “East is just as physical, and we have to match that tomorrow night or we don’t have a chance.”
East Carter has won both games between the teams this season, prevailing 48-47 on Jan. 30 in Grayson and 71-60 on Feb. 20 in Ashland.
That amounts to nothing tonight, obviously. It’s just one game with a trip to Diddle Arena on the line.
“There’s no secrets,” Easterling said. “They know what we’re gonna try to do; we know what they’re gonna try to do. It’s how you play tomorrow night. It’s who gets out there and does what they do best and imposes their will on the other team that is gonna walk away with the win.”
If nothing else, though, those games did show East Carter what it can do successfully against Ashland, and consequently gave the Kittens an idea what they needed to shore up to play well tonight.
“We have to be more aggressive going to the basket,” Bradley said. “I thought we got a little passive the first game. I thought our second game we did go to the basket a lot better, and I thought our defense wasn’t very good the second half.”
The 60 points Ashland put up on East Carter the second time were nearly 20 more than what the Lady Raiders are yielding on average per game.
“They’re very talented. They present so many problems offensively,” Easterling said of the Kittens. “You start with (point guard Alexis) Robinson, who can just break you down in the lane and get to the free throw line. The other Robinson, Mykasa, she’s coming on now, she made some 3s tonight, (Chelsea) Woodson can knock down shots, and (Shelby) Gransbery’s looking to take the ball to the basket more.
“You have to be tough every possession and try not to give them easy baskets and make them take tough shots.”
Putting all that together, Ashland and East Carter look forward to playing a classic tonight.
“I’ve said this all year, this group has seemed to embrace the big stage and the spotlight and playing against good teams, and I think we’ll do that tomorrow night,” Easterling said. “(East Carter’s players) really didn’t care a lot, but I think in the back of their minds they wanted to play Ashland again, and they’ve answered the bell.”
The Kittens pined for another shot at the Lady Raiders, too.
“It’s good because we’ve all wanted to get back at them,” Mykasa Robinson said. “We want to show them that we can beat them.”
Alexis Robinson, a two-time region tournament MVP, and Foutch are the only Kittens left who played significant minutes for Ashland’s region champions the past two seasons.
“They have to be very calm tomorrow night, try to be the leaders,” Bradley said of his junior stars. “But we’re very confident right now. Mykasa’s very confident, Shelby’s playing well, you got Chelsea doing a great job, Alex (Young) has been around a little bit.
“So if we can just do things we know we can do, then I think it’ll be a great game.”
Dunlap on Scene
Local radio broadcaster Charlie Dunlap is back on the air after spending four days during district tournament week in Cabell Huntington Hospital with pneumonia.
Dunlap is calling games for the School Boy Radio Network this week. He has called Greenup County boys’ games all season on WLGC with Kent Robinson.
“I’m back about 90 percent,” Dunlap said after calling East Carter’s semifinal defeat of Russell with Jim Forrest on Thursday. “I’m still recovering, but I went to the doctor today and they told me everything was good to go.”
Dunlap plans to miss tonight’s girls’ final because he wants to be well-rested for Saturday, when he’ll be in Johnson Arena for all four boys’ quarterfinals.
“I hate to miss the championship game, but I need to rest a little bit,” he said.
Dunlap turns 65 in June. He called his first region tournament in 1972, he said.
Since then, it’s become an important week to him.
“You get to see a lot of people you don’t see during the year, or you just briefly get to see them (then),” Dunlap said. “You get to see some people that I met back 40 years ago, and now they’re in different states. And it’s really fun, and it’s just exciting to see tournament ball here in Kentucky. There can’t be anything else (quite like it).”
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658(606) 326-2658.