CORBIN —Season openers don’t get much bigger than the Bell County Lady Cats’ showdown with Whitley County on Wednesday at the Cumberland Falls Invitational. Bell knocked off Whitley in the semifinals of last year’s 13th Region tournament and the teams enter this season as the favorites to unseat Corbin as regional champions.
Both teams lived up to the hype in a back-and-forth contest, but the Lady Cats closed it with a 13-4 run to pull away for a 63-55 win. Junior guard Maci Morris scored 29 points to lead the way.
“You want to win anytime you play, but to open up the season with a win against a such a good quality opponent is a great way to start the year,” Bell coach David Teague said. “Coach (Donnie) Jones does a good job with that Whitley County bunch and they’ve got a heck of a basketball team. That’s a good win for our kids, it shows we can battle with people and maybe gives them some confidence going forward.”
The Lady Colonels got a 3-pointer from Maria Johnson to take a 51-50 lead with just under 5:00 to play, but from there the Bell County defense held Whitley to 0-for-7 shooting (0-5 from 3-point range) and forced three turnovers on their way to the win.
“I was on a few of them hard throughout the game for their defensive effort. I told them after the game not to take anything personal, but there are times you’ve got to get your tail down and guard,” Teague said. “I was pleased that we got some stops there. I thought our post players battled down inside, we didn’t rebound the ball well for the majority of the game but we rebounded at the end when we needed to.”
Senior guard Morgan Garnett, who finished with 13 points, answered Johnson’s basket with a little jumper of her own to put the Lady Cats back on top at the 4:35 mark. After two missed Whitley 3-pointers and an exchange of turnovers, Garnett hit a 3 from the right wing on a kick-out from Morris and Bell led 55-51.
Following two free throws from Whitley’s Kandace Craig and an exchange of possessions, Lady Cat Katrina Johnson deflected a pass that Jess Sanders picked up and took the length of the floor. Brandi Smith blocked Sanders’ layup, but on an inbounds play from under the basket Morris got the ball on the block, spun into the lane for a hook shot and was fouled. She converted the three-point play and then came away with a steal and two more free throws that put Bell up 60-53 win under a minute to play.
“Offensively we finally settled down and made some plays. We got the ball into the people’s hands that we needed it in and we finally got the floor spread a little bit and were able to attack and get to the basket,” said Teague. “That’s what you need in those situations.”
Smith hit two free throws for the Lady Colonels, but Kelli Smith went 3-for-4 from the line and Whitley couldn’t connect from long range as the Lady Cats went on to the eight-point win.
Junior guard Hallie Jones led Whitley County with 15 points before leaving in the third quarter with a leg injury. Brandi Smith finished with 14, Craig 12 and Taylor Dingess added eight off the bench.
Morris and Garnett were the only two Lady Cats in double figures as Kelli Smith finished with seven points while Sanders and Johnson scored five apiece.
Whitley County led 13-12 after one quarter and 30-29 at the half. It continued to be nip and tuck for most of the second half and the third quarter saw three ties and three lead changes.
Dingess and Craig scored four points each during an 8-1 spurt that saw the Lady Colonels go up 44-38 by the 2:36 mark of the period.
The Lady Cats came right back. Morris drove the lane for a basket, rebounded a Whitley miss at the other end and took it all the way in for a layup to make it a two-point game. A steal and layup by Brandi Smith put the Lady Colonels back up by four, but Morris answered with a floater in the lane. Bell County forced a turnover and Sanders was able to drive in from the right side for a basket to tie it at 46 at the 22 second mark.
After a Whitley miss, Sanders found senior Kaitlyn Taylor open in front of the Bell bench for a 3-pointer with five seconds on the clock and the Lady Cats took a 49-46 lead into the fourth.
“The turning point might have been Kaitlyn Taylor making that three from the wing. We’re tied up and that gives us a little energy. That was a big shot and that’s a senior stepping up and making a play,” Teague added. “And Maci did what Maci does, she’s just a basketball player. We put the ball in her and Jess’ hands and let them make plays and they did a good job.”
The Lady Colonels came back to take the lead one last time, but it was Bell’s night in the end.
The tournament continues in Corbin through Saturday. Bell County (1-0) will play South Laurel on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. while Whitley County (1-1) plays South Laurel on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Both teams will play on Saturday with their opponent and times determined by how the rest of the games play out.
— — —
BELL CO. (63) — Maci Morris 29, Morgan Garnett 13, Kelli Smith 7, Katrina Johnson 5, Jess Sanders 5, Sarah Collins 1, Kaitlyn Taylor 3, Allison Howard 0, Caliegh Collett 0.
WHITLEY CO. (55) — Hallie Jones 15, Brandi Smith 14, Kandace Craig 12, Maria Johnson 3, Savanna Sizemore 0, Taylor Dingess 8, Abbey Estes 3, Haley Mahan 0, Emily Vanderpool 0.