Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 14, 2014

Four-titude: Kittens punch state semifinal ticket

Rocky Stanley
The Independent

BOWLING GREEN — Even with injury and foul concerns up front, Ashland's girls sent Cinderella packing in the Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals Friday afternoon in Diddle Arena.

Haley-Sue Foutch, saddled with four fouls since the first half, scored 12 of her 19 points in the fourth quarter and the Kittens sank 18 of 21 free throws in the final period to turn away undersized, but feisty Danville 64-55.

Shelby Gransbery, the other half of the Kittens' inside duo, went down with a sprained ankle in the first quarter but returned to give her team a lift.  

The victory sends Ashland to the state's Final Four for the first time since the girls' modern era began in 1975.

“It feels really great making history,” junior point guard Alexis Robinson said. “We really wanted this.”

Playing on Saturday at the Sweet Sixteen — the Kittens will face Butler tonight at 7:30 p.m. EST — is certainly more than coach Bill Bradley imagined when the season started.

“We graduated seven of our top nine players,” he said. “We had all kinds of new kids. I didn't think we would jell that well this year. These last three games we've had wins against East Carter and Henderson County, two top-10 teams, and today beat a Danville team that has been on fire.”

Ashland (26-8) shot 52.8 percent in cooling off the Lady Admirals, who had won nine of their last 10 games. Danville was making its first State Tournament trip after never winning a district title or region tournament game before this season.

The Kittens used their length — four starters 5-foot-10 or taller — to cause plenty of defensive problems for the 12th Region champs, who did not start a player taller than 5-6.

Ashland blocked 11 shots and altered many others in limiting Danville to 28.8 percent from the field.

“That team is a better team than us,” Danville coach Judie Mason said. “If we make some shots … we shot 66 times and they shot 36 times and we lost, but that's because of their length.”

The aggressive Lady Admirals kept the game close into the fourth quarter with the help of a 38-29 rebounding advantage. They racked up 22 on the offensive end and also committed only four turnovers.

“They are very similar to Fleming County in our region,” Bradley said. “They just get after you, non-stop.”  

Danville made its final push to close to 47-42 with 3:55 left, but Ashland scored seven of the next eight points and used free throws to seal the outcome.

“That was a great, gutsy win with Shelby's condition and Haley-Sue in foul trouble,” Bradley said. “Composure. We worked hard and made shots, but keeping our cool was probably the main thing.”

An Ashland crowd that far outnumbered its first-round game aided the Kittens' cause. Between 75 and 100 more students showed up Friday and turned up the volume.

“I looked up during the game at the throng we had and couldn't believe it,” Bradley said. “We had like eight students last year, and 10 the year before that. It's a five-hour drive for these kids. A lot came and are staying overnight.”     

The Kittens, who have been going with six players late in the season, switched from their halfcourt man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone because of Foutch's foul trouble and Gransbery's injury.

Gransbery, the star of Ashland's first-round victory over Henderson County, took a spill while leaping toward the basket on a drive Friday. She had to be helped off the court with 2:13 remaining in the opening quarter.

“I've never been hurt before,” Gransbery said. “It was terrible. I had to go in the hallway and run sprints, jump and stretch it out.”

Although she returned to the court when Foutch picked up her fourth foul with 2:39 left in the half, Gransbery was hobbling and unable to jump.

The teams went to the locker room tied at 24 and Gransbery had the ankle iced and taped.

“It was a pretty good sprain,” Bradley said. “Shelby had the ankle in an ice bucket for about 10 minutes.”

Gransbery started the second half, but still with a limp. Early in the third quarter, Bradley had Foutch waiting to check in for her, but Gransbery made a basket from close range without going airborne and was fouled on the play. Bradley opted to substitute Foutch for someone else instead.

“I decided to give Shelby one more chance,” the Kittens coach said. “Then the next trip she gets a rebound. That one play saved her and probably saved the game for us. We've got to have her in there.”

Danville led 34-33 before Mykasa Robinson put Ashland in front to stay with a 3-pointer. Gransbery added a basket off an Alex Young assist in the closing seconds of the third quarter to make it 38-34.

Gransbery showed better mobility the rest of the way and had five blocks and six rebounds to go with her seven points.

Meanwhile, Foutch finished with a flourish while dodging a fifth foul. Her fourth quarter included three baskets, 6-of-7 shooting at the free throw line and six rebounds. Foutch led the Kittens with 13 boards and rejected three shots.

“She's so smart,” Bradley said. “Haley-Sue's maybe the only one on the team that could have done that (without fouling out).”

Foutch feels like the Kittens fit in well as one of the last four teams standing.

“I am so excited,” said the 5-11 junior. “I don't think we are underdogs at all. If we play our best we are right up with them.”

Mykasa Robinson, the youngest impact player in the tournament, continued to make major contributions for the Kittens. The eighth-grader tossed in 18 points, including an 8-for-8 effort at the foul line in the fourth quarter.

Her older sister, Alexis, finished with 11 points, five rebounds, two assists and a couple of blocks.

Danville senior guard Essence Grey, a 2,000-point career scorer, repeatedly drove into the teeth of Ashland's defense and totaled a game-high 25 points but needed 25 shots to do it.      

“She's a great player, like Alexis on our team,” Gransbery said.

ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at rstanley@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2671.