BAXTER — The Bell County Lady Cats, fresh off their first 52nd District championship since 2006, will meet a very improved Lynn Camp team in the first round of the 13th Tournament on Wednesday at Harlan County.
“We’ve not played them and haven’t even saw them this year. I know they’ve had an awful good season and won 23 games,” Bell coach David Teague said. “I hear they’ve got a nice guard and a nice big girl inside that’s a good player. We’ll just have to see if we can get a scouting report on them and prepare ourselves and get ready to go. It should be a fun game for us.”
Lynn Camp will bring a physical brand of basketball to the tourney, led by guards Kayla Smith and Heather Wilson. Those two have had their outside shooting complemented by an improved inside game from junior center Jessica May and it has led to the best season in years for the Lady Wildcats.
“We have put together a pretty good season, we’re 23-9. It’s just in our two big games — the 51st District championship game and the All ‘A’ championship — we came up just a little bit short. Hopefully it will all come together during the region,” Lynn Camp coach Richard Jones said.
Bell County has their eye on a regional championship. Sophomore guard Maci Morris has to be the most versatile player in the region. On any given night she’s capable of putting up 30 points, she can grab 12 rebounds and block a few shots like she did in Friday’s win over Harlan County, and she also plays a big role in bringing the ball up the court against the press and getting steals of her own.
“She’s one of the best players, not only in the 13th Region, but in the state. We’re going to have to try to find a way to contain her,” Jones said of Morris. “We’re just happy to be here and just hope we can advance one more round.”
Bell sophomore guard Jess Sanders might just be quick enough to start for a lot of boys’ teams. And when teams collapse to deal with her and Morris penetrating, it opens up the outside for junior Morgan Garnett and freshmen Kelli Smith and Katrina Johnson to knock down jumpers.
Having so much of the offense run through underclassmen could create some tensions with the older players, but that has not been a problem for the Lady Cats. Teague said it’s thanks to the leadership of senior forwards Paige Robbins and Jamie Boatright.
“It’s a good group of girls and they are a close-knit group. Paige is undoubtedly our leader right now, she keeps us going and keeps them together. She doesn’t care a bit to get on somebody when she has to,” he said. “Jamie Boatright is our other senior, and even though sometimes she doesn’t play big minutes she’s always real positive and works hard in practice.
“That part of it is has come together throughout the season and we’ve made strides in that area. Hopefully we continue to stay on track with it.”
Wednesday’s first game will see Clay County go up against Whitley County at 6:15 p.m.
The Lady Tigers have won six of the last seven regional championships, including the last four in a row. The road to a fifth straight crown looks to be the hardest yet.
“There are so many good teams in this region I don’t think there was such a thing as a good draw, you just have to go out ready to play every night knowing you’re going to see a good team,” said Clay coach James Burchell. “You just have to be prepared to go through the long haul of playing, hopefully, three games and just tough it out.”
Clay County had three losses to regional opponents during the regular season, the most they’ve had during their recent run of success. But the Lady Tigers have come on strong late in the year with 13 wins in their last 14 games. Senior forward Cheyenne Madden has picked up her all-around game during that span and teams with fellow seniors Morgan Chestnut and Sara Robinson to form the top front court in the region.
But Burchell says its the improvement of his young guards Ajaycia Cotton and Talaura Mathis that have made the difference.
“The thing about our team right now is when our guards play well we’re pretty good. We’ve been a little bit inconsistent, but I’m pleased with how we’re playing right now,” he said. “Our guards have really come a long way, but it remains to be seen how they’ll react to tournament pressure and that type of thing. Everybody has got to go through that.”
Early in the season Whitley looked like they might just be the team to end the Lady Tigers’ run of regional titles. The Lady Colonels got off to an 8-0 start, including a 58-55 win at Clay. But a string of injuries decimated the team, most notably to junior center Kandice Craig, senior guard Bethany Powers and junior Brandi Smith. They are all back on the court but playing at less than 100 percent.
Larry Anderson’s girls were able to pull out a win over South Laurel in the 50th District tournament and then played Corbin tough in the championship game, so they won’t be exiting the region without a fight.
On Thursday host Harlan County goes up against 51st District champion Barbourville at 6:15 p.m. The Lady Bears won both meetings with the Lady Tigers during the regular season.
“We have played a couple of times this year, so we are very familiar with each other. They have a very experienced team. They shoot the ball well and they push the ball hard, so we have to play good transition defense,” said Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan. “It is a tough matchup. Hopefully, our kids will be ready to play Thursday night.”
Teague said that Clay County still has to be considered the favorite based on their history of success in the tournament.
“They’ve won it the last four years and until somebody knocks them off in a regional tournament, they’re going to be the favorite in my opinion. I think they’ve got the best record in the region and they’ve played a tough schedule. At the same time there are some other teams there: Corbin, Harlan County and others. I feel like it’s as deep of a tournament as it has been in several years,” he said.
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Here’s the complete girls’ draw:
Clay County (26-5) vs. Whitley County (19-10), 6:15 p.m.
Bell County (25-5) vs. Lynn Camp (23-9), 7:45 p.m.
Barbourville (21-10) vs. Harlan County (25-6), 6:15 p.m.
Corbin (24-8) vs. North Laurel (6-25), 7:45 p.m.
Clay Co.-Whitley Co. winner vs. Bell Co.-Lynn Camp winner, 12:30 p.m.
Barbourville-Harlan Co. winner vs. Corbin-North Laurel winner, 2 p.m.
Monday, March 4
Championship game, 7 p.m.