By AARON SNYDER / The Independent
BOWLING GREEN--Although the fairy tale didn't end with a crown, Rowan County's journey was magical while it lasted.
The Lady Vikings ran into a merciless Louisville Mercy team that attacked with furious pressure.
Mercy never totally put Rowan County away, but a defining second-quarter run and turnovers spelled the end of Rowan's run. The Lady Jaguars beat the Lady Vikings 53-45 in the semifinals of the Houchens Industries KHSAA Sweet 16 Girls' State Basketball Tournament Saturday morning at Western Kentucky University's E.A. Diddle Arena.
“It's tough to end the season like this, but we came a long way,” said a teary-eyed Rowan County forward Jenna Kiser, one of the team's four seniors. “It was my dream to play Saturday morning and we did it.”
Kiser was instrumental as Rowan County refused to go away quietly, pulling down a game-high 11 rebounds.
The Lady Vikings outrebounded Mercy 45-35, but the Lady Jaguars earned more possessions by forcing 30 turnovers, several of which came during a 17-1 spurt that began in the first quarter and spanned into the second.
Kaitlyn Muncy, Rowan County's senior point guard, had important baskets to give Rowan County an early 7-3 advantage, but Mercy's 1-2-2 pressure was devastating.
“I've never seen anything like that before in my life,” Muncy said. “I don't usually turn the ball over. They caught me off guard. We've never seen that type of defense before.”
“We wanted a possession-by-possession game,” said Rowan County coach Scott Tackett. “We had the game where we wanted it after the first quarter, but they gave us fits with their athleticism.”
Tackett knew the Lady Jaguars would apply maximum pressure, but it was an unfamiliar look for the Lady Vikings.
“With our athleticism, teams don't press us in (the 16th Region),” Tackett said. “Mercy, with their length and athleticism, that's something we hadn't seen in a while. You can't simulate that kind of pressure in practice.
“I think at times they were playing with seven (players),” Tackett joked.
Rowan County (22-9) battled back from a 24-11 halftime deficit to cut Mercy's lead to 30-24 with a minute remaining in the third quarter behind Tierra Hamilton's free-throw shooting.
However, on the next possession, Adri Neely tried unsuccessfully to push a pass inside to Natasha Kissinger under the basket.
While the turnover sparked another run by Mercy, the Lady Vikings again rallied.
Trailing 44-29 with 3:43 left, Rowan County outscored Mercy 10-2 in the next two minutes. Mercy had to sink free throws to hold off the Lady Vikings, and it did so by draining 18 of 21 total attempts, including 11 made free throws by Ellen Sholtes. Sholtes finished with a game-high 22 points.
Mercy (26-8) held Kissinger (18 ppg) scoreless, to which Mercy coach Mark Evans credited Therese Montano and again, the 1-2-2 pressure.
“It was not anything spectacular we did to (Kissinger),” Evans said. “She was covered well man-to-man by (Montano), but a lot of that was just us keeping them off-balanced. We just try to take people out of their comfort level.”
Neely and Hamilton were selected as Rowan County's representatives on the All-Tournament team. Neely scored 17 points and had seven rebounds against Mercy. Hamilton, a junior coming off a 13-point performance in the quarterfinal win over Clay County, notched 15 points Saturday.
Tackett admitted his team's fate was painful to take, but called his bunch “the most coachable group” he's ever seen or had.
“They've left a legacy,” said Tackett, who has taken Rowan County to the state tournament in each of his first three years as head coach.
“I thanked them in the locker room because I didn't bring them here,” he paused. “They brought me.”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.