LEXINGTON - Scott County’s high-octane girls’ basketball attack had no major difficulty adapting to the history-laden hoop superhighway that is Rupp Arena.
After spotting Knott County Central a six-point lead out of the gate, the Lady Cards ran the Lady Patriots ragged, found their scoring touch from all fields and exploded to an 87-61 victory in the opening round of the KHSAA Sweet 16.
Maaliya Owens led SC (34-1) with 30 points. Morgan DeFoor delivered 21. Together, they combined for 10 of the Lady Cards’ dozen 3-pointers.
“We definitely need to redeem ourselves from last year,” DeFoor said, recalling a first-round defeat at the hands of DuPont Manual, held at Northern Kentucky University last March. “I like this court and these rims a lot better. I want to do it for my seniors. I’ve been playing with them a long time, and they deserve this.”
SC had the honor of tipping off the entire tournament and will enjoy the same time slot in the quarterfinals against Owensboro Catholic at noon Friday.
It was the third consecutive first-game loss at state for Knott County Central (25-8), which like most opponents struggled to keep up with SC’s foot-to-the-floorboard tendencies.
Jada Higgins paced the Lady Patriots with 20 points, and Keara Mullins mustered 13, but they combined to go 10-for-38 from the field. KCC connected at a 28.8 percent clip overall.
“The tempo finally got going in our favor,” SC coach Steve Helton said. “Early on Knott County Central came out and executed well. It’s one of those situations where we settled in and we battled through.”
Scott County, which led the state at a pace of more than 80 points per game during the regular season, had only four when Mullins sank two free throws to put Knott on top by a half-dozen with 3:21 remaining in the first period.
It was eerily reminiscent of last year’s rim-rocking show against Manual. A deep three from DeFoor and a step-back encore from Owens promptly tied the game and exorcised any such demons.
“I think it means everything to us. We’ve worked so hard all season preparing for this moment,” Owens said. “And I think last year did play a factor, because we wanted to prove that we deserve to be here, and since that game was such a shock, we needed to come out and show all the work that we put in and play harder and play as a team.”
Higgins countered with a drive and briefly restored Knott County’s lead, but the Lady Patriots never again enjoyed that rare air after the Lady Cards’ ensuing 11-0 binge.
Owens tied it with two free throws. Kaylie Wise, seeing early time after Malea Williams picked up two quick fouls, posted up and put SC in front for good.
Steal-and-layup combinations from DeFoor and Juliette Smith, sandwiched around a 3-point play by Owens, made it 21-12 after one.
“It feels good to be back-to-back regional champs and to be here,” said Smith, who finished with 14 points and five assists.
“We’re here to win a state championship.”
SC looked the part of a team seriously in that mix for the duration of its debut.
Owens canned two 3-pointers and Smith used an up-and-under move to push the Lady Cards’ lead to double digits midway through the second period.
“Scott County shot the ball awfully well,” Knott County Central coach Jeff Honeycutt said. “We had to give up something. We wanted to make them jump shooters, and we just picked the wrong day, because they made everything they shot.”
The Lady Cards landed a middle-of-the-road 42 percent of their tries in all, but they were 12-for-28 from beyond the arc and 17-of-22 at the free-throw line.
DeFoor drained a 3-pointer and cashed in a long look from Smith for three the old-fashioned way, in succession, to ward off a brief KCC rally and launch another 11-0 run. Four free throws from Kenady Tompkins and another deep trifecta from Owens made it a 20-point cushion. Scott County led 47-29 at the half.
“It’s really good to get this first one going. First game of the tournament, it was a great way to tip off,” Helton said. “At times we looked comfortable, and at times it took us a while to get comfortable. It was a game of runs.”
Helton used the term “me ball” to describe a selfish style of play that sometimes crept into one-sided wins during the season.
There were no signs of that in the state opener. In addition to Smith’s assist total, Braylee McMath dished out six. DeFoor had four, and Owens three.
After spending almost the entire first half on the bench in foul difficulty, Williams made her presence known with 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.
“I know there are some issues when you play our style. You’re going to turn the ball over. But there are also 94 feet the other team has to run with us,” Helton said. “We wanted to run for 32 minutes, and I thought today we ran for about 27 minutes. There were about five minutes there where we struggled, but I’m very proud of our execution as the game progressed.”
Whether it was Owens and DeFoor hitting from downtown or Smith slashing to the basket, Knott found no answers on the other side of intermission.
Hailey Ward also naield two late 3-pointers to keep the Lady Cards cranking until the buzzer.
Playing at Rupp was the emotional roller-coaster everyone expected from the opening tap. Helton praised his team for not letting those butterflies linger.
“This is the bright lights, big stage. This is where kids at the age of five, grow up wearing UK (apparel) and think, ‘I want to grow up to be a Wildcat someday.’ No matter how many times we’ve been to state, no matter how many big games these kids have been in, they’ve not been on this stage,” he said. “We really didn’t talk about it a lot, because we kind of knew it was going to happen. We weathered the storm. You hit 12 threes out here the first time out, and hopefully we can hit a few more next game.”
It was Scott County’s 16th consecutive win and its first in the state tournament since 2010, when the Lady Cards reached the final before falling to Louisville Mercy.
Emily Williams added 11 points for Knott County Central, which turned it over 15 times compared to Scott County’s 10.
“It was a lifelong dream to get to coach here. Growing up here, there’s no way to describe getting to play or coach at Rupp,” Honeycutt said. “We’ve had our ups and downs, and it wasn’t the outcome we wanted, but there are other teams that would have loved to come here today and have the opportunity we’ve had. We’re blessed.”
Helton said he never mentioned last year’s loss in the week leading up to state.
“This is a totally different team. I coach them totally different. This team can be coached hard,” SC’s leader said. “We didn’t change our routine this week. The only thing a little bit different was our pregame getting through security.”
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.