LEXINGTON Boyd County players could hardly wait to take the floor as the KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen made its debut at Rupp Arena this week.

The Lady Lions were already out of their locker room and waiting in the tunnel Thursday afternoon with still a second half to play in the preceding game.

Their energy carried into the opening minutes. Savannah Wheeler — Kentucky’s Miss Basketball — hit a 3-pointer from the wing to give the 16th Region champions a 7-4 lead.

It would be Boyd County’s last, however. Male reeled off 14 consecutive points and won the physical contest, 74-56, in a marquee matchup of red-hot teams.

“I wouldn’t go to war with anybody else but these young ladies,” said proud Male coach Champ Ligon.           

The Lady Bulldogs’ title hopes seemingly took a major blow earlier this week when 6-foot-1 star Cameron Browning was diagnosed with mononucleosis and ruled out for the tournament. Browning is the program’s all-time leading scorer and averages a double-double this season.

Enter Maya Crimes. The 5-11 senior stepped into a starting role and did her best Browning impression with 19 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.

“I was a little nervous,” Crimes said. “My teammates kept saying, ‘You got it.’ I think we did what we knew we could do.”

Male’s size advantage and defense prevailed while Boyd County found the Rupp rims most unfriendly, especially from long range. The Lady Lions shot a frosty 4-for-30 beyond the arc and 25 percent overall.

“Tough loss,” Boyd County coach Pete Fraley said. “Male was just a little better than us today. All hats off to them. They had an excellent game plan.

“When we have struggled, it’s been against teams that are physical. I thought they took us out of some things we like to do. The play really good defense.”

Six-footer Joelle Johnson also stuffed the stat sheet for the Lady Bulldogs. She racked up 13 points, 15 rebounds and four assists to go with four of her team’s 10 rejections.   

Destiny Combs, the other member of Male’s front line, came up large as well. The senior forward was 9 of 12 from the field to finish with 19 points and six rebounds.

“Tremendous job,” Ligon said of the senior-driven showing. “Over their careers they have not gotten the credit they deserve. To come out on this stage and perform like that ...”

Male (23-7) built a 15-point lead in the second quarter, then watched Boyd County climb back behind a full-court press that helped generate 18 turnovers.

The Lady Lions trimmed the deficit to five on three occasions in the third quarter, with Harley Paynter scoring eight of her 16 points. But each time, Male scored inside.

“We were outsized, obviously, but kept battling hard,” Wheeler said. “We didn’t back down.”

Boyd trailed by 16 early in the fourth quarter before making a final push. Wheeler hit two free throws and a 3-pointer during a 7-0 run to make it 59-50 midway through the period.

The comeback ran out of steam, however, and Male put the game away with inside buckets and free throws. The Lady Bulldogs made 13 of 14 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.

“All those KHSAA stats are null and void,” Fraley said. “They shot 61 percent on free throws (this season). Today they knocked down all kinds.”  

Crimes converted 9 of 10, while guard Kynidi Striverson was 7-for-9 on her way to 11 points.  

Wheeler paced Boyd County with 28 points. She was perfect on 14 free throws while going 6-for-28 from the field against tough coverage.

“She’s a great player and I’ve got a great team,” Ligon said.

Male scored 40 points in the paint and posted a rebound advantage of 11, though Boyd County grabbed 17 offensive boards.           

Boyd County closed the season at 28-5 on the heels of last year’s Final Four finish. Fraley praised Wheeler for setting the example on her way to being recognized as the state’s top senior.

“Savannah has paved the way,” her coach said. “They can see the hard work that she’s put in. We may have another candidate or two coming through.”

Said Wheeler: “Boyd County will always be special in my heart.”  

Male advances to meet Barren County tonight in the quarterfinals. The Fourth Region champs rolled past Pikeville, 65-47, in Thursday’s first game.

Former Fleming County coach Kristy Orem guided Pikeville to a 27-win season and its first state tournament appearance since 1980. But the Lady Panthers fell behind, 32-15, at halftime and dropped to 0-3 all-time at the Sweet Sixteen.

“Obviously, we didn’t get the good start we wanted,” Orem said. “I didn’t know how they would handle first-minute jitters. The first half was rough as far as shooting percentage (23.8) and rebounding. I think this was the first time we’ve been outrebounded all year.”    

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rstanley@dailyindependent.com

BOYD CO.    FG    FT    REB    TP

Wheeler    6-28    14-14    7    28

G. Borders    0-3    2-6    5    2

Paynter    8-18    0-0    7    16

E. Borders    0-4    0-0    6    0

Rucker    1-8    1-2    6    4

Opell    1-3    0-0    0    2

Parsons    0-1    0-0    0    0

Biggs    1-3    1-2    2    4

Caldwell    0-0    0-0    0    0

Mulhearn    0-0    0-0    0    0

Curnutte    0-0    0-0    0    0

Woods    0-0    0-0    0    0

Team            3

TOTALS    17-68    18-24    36    56

FG Pct.: 25.0. FT Pct.: 75.0. 3-point FGs: 4-30 (Wheeler 2-10, Rucker 1-4, E. Borders 0-4, Paynter 0-7, Biggs 1-2, Opell 0-2, Parsons 0-1). PF: 25. Fouled out: G. Borders, Rucker. Turnovers: 12.

MALE    FG    FT    REB    TP

Johnson    5-10    3-4    15    13

Combs    9-12    1-3    6    19

A. Striverson    2-12    3-4    1    7

Crimes    5-10    9-10    14    19

K. Striverson    2-4    7-9    1    11

Grinter    1-3    0-0    0    3

Carr    0-1    0-0    2    0

Mhango    0-0    0-0    0    0

Hargrave    0-0    0-0    0    0

Griggs    0-0    0-0    0    0

Martin    0-0    0-0    2    0

White    0-0    2-2    0    2

Team            6

TOTALS    24-52    25-32    47    74

FG Pct.: 46.2. FT Pct.: 78.1. 3-point FGs: 1-11 (Johnson 0-1, Combs 0-1, K. Striverson 0-1, A. Striverson 0-7, Grinter 1-1). PF: 21. Fouled out: None. Turnovers: 18.

BOYD CO.    9    15    12    20    —    56

MALE    18    12    14    30    —    74

Officials: Tony Pompilo, Tommy Young, Kyle Stewart.