After toppling three-time defending champion Boyd County in the 16th Region Tournament final, Russell’s girls are on a quest for another exhilarating victory.
The Lady Devils play Bowling Green tonight in Rupp Arena. The 6:30 matchup begins the state tournament’s final session of the opening round.
“We had an awesome practice (Monday),” Russell coach Mandy Layne said. “We feel we have an opportunity to win the first game. It’s a great motivation. It’s been a long time since Russell won a game at the state tournament. This is another way these girls can leave their footprint, their legacy.”
Russell (26-8) last won at the Sweet Sixteen with a semifinal finish in 1976 — just the second year of the modern era for girls high school basketball in Kentucky.
“This is only our fifth time going,” said Layne, who also guided the Lady Devils to state in 2016. “It would be a pretty big deal if we can win (tonight). I think they’re super excited about that.”
Just ask senior forward Kate Ruggles.
“The Road to Rupp. This has been our goal all season,” Ruggles said after the Lady Devils’ 75-57 triumph over Boyd County last Saturday at Morehead State University.
Russell (26-8) put all the pieces together. Kaeli Ross went off for a career-high 33 points to win MVP honors. Aubrey Hill took over inside including six of her team’s 10 blocked shots. Dynamic young point guard Shaelyn Steele played a strong second half after returning from foul trouble.
“I think our physicality and mental toughness are things that have grown for us,” Layne said. “The girls played with that confidence like they knew we were going to win the game.
“It’s been huge for our community,” Layne continued. “There have been former players thanking the girls for getting back to the state tournament.”
Ross came out sizzling in the region final and hit four of five 3-point attempts. Her 33 points tied for No. 2 all-time in the tournament’s championship game. She shares the spot with former Lady Devil Allison Osborn (1994) and Ashland’s Barb Harkins (1977). West Carter’s Marla Gearhart set the record with 37 points in ‘96.
“What a great time for Kaeli’s standout performance, to step up in an atmosphere like that,” Layne said. “It shows all the work she’s put in to become a better player. I just feel her defense, rebounding and intensity have greatly improved. She’s been able to play more consistent in every game.”
Steele leads the team in scoring with 16.4 points per game. Ross averages 13.2. Hill joins them in double figures at 11.2 and has developed into a force on both ends of the floor. In the region title game, she had 15 points and 14 rebounds (eight offensive) to go with her strong defensive presence.
“I feel like Aubrey’s timing has gotten so much better,” Layne said. “She has that dimension where she can score over anybody.”
Layne sees several similarities between the Lady Devils and a Bowling Green squad that features several young key players.
Both teams have length and rely on defense to set the tone.
“Bowling Green’s long and athletic,” Layne said. “They like to get a lot of their points from defense. Neither one of us shoots a lot of 3s. I expect a grind it out kind of game. I think whichever team is tougher will win it.”
Their one common opponent — 10th Region winner George Rogers Clark — also resides in the lower half of the state tournament bracket. GRC defeated Bowling Green in double overtime at the Queen of the Commonwealth tournament in December and also won 66-58 at Russell during early January.
The Lady Purples (28-6) defeated rival Barren County 58-48 for the Fourth Region title. In the process, Bowling Green’s 5-10 freshman Saniyah Shelton limited KABC region Player of the Year Elizabeth Bertram to six points — far below her 20.8 average.
Shelton leads a balanced attack with 12.8 points per game. Following closely are Keyozdon Jones (11.6), LynKaylah James (10.3) and Meadow Tisdale (9.6).
“Our young kids have grown up fast,” Bowling Green coach Calvin Head said. “I feel like our strength of schedule helped us a lot, especially early. We exposed our kids to that level of basketball. They kept fighting to get better.”
Head expects Russell to pose a strong challenge.
“I think they’re really good,” he said. “Their point guard Steele can flat play. Ross is a very good player who can really shoot it and handles the ball better than people give her credit for. Hill is long and can finish around the rim. We have not seen that much size and length at one time.”
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