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LEXINGTON— Coach Tim Mudd thinks back to last season and isn’t sure if his Elizabethtown Lady Panthers were tough enough to win a game like they did Monday night.
In a matchup more fitting for the state final than a late-December tournament, Elizabethtown and Anderson County — regarded as the state’s top two teams — provided a glimpse of what could be in store in March.
Sophomore forward Erin Boley and junior post Reauna Cleaver both had double-doubles and Elizabethtown held Anderson County to one point in the final 5 minutes as the Lady Panthers beat the Lady Bearcats, 51-42 in the Republic Bank Holiday Classic final at Lexington Catholic.
“I think it shows how hard we’ve been working and it shows that everything we’ve been working on is paying off,” said Tournament MVP Boley, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds. “It also shows that we have room to improve, too. It gives us a lot of confidence, but now we know we can improve on this. We’re starting to learn how to play with each other and how good we can be.”
Boley and the Lady Panthers (8-1) showed just how good they can be down the stretch, closing with a 12-1 run as the Lady Bearcats (10-2) went cold.
Anderson County led 41-39 with 5:24 remaining. Mudd said last season facing a late deficit against a team like Anderson County, he’s not sure the Lady Panthers would have had what it takes to mount a game-changing rally.
However, the Lady Bearcats didn’t score again until standout senior guard Makenzie Cann hit 1-of-2 free throws with 35 seconds left and the Lady Panthers leading 51-41.
“Last year, we wouldn’t have done that – we weren’t tough enough,” Mudd said. “We knew that we had a size advantage, but we had to take advantage of it. I don’t think we took advantage of that in the first half.
Elizabethtown took advantage enough to finish with a 36-27 rebounding edge.
“The second half we dominated the boards a little bit better,” Mudd said. “We did a much better job on the rebounds and getting a tip-out here and there for an extra possession, which is huge in a game like this.”
Cleaver, who chipped in with 15 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, said the Lady Panthers had to take control of the glass if they wanted to end the Lady Bearcats’ five-game winning streak.
“We knew that they were smaller than us, so we knew everybody could rebound against them,” Cleaver said. “We also had to play good defense, and we did that. We know defense wins games, and that’s the main thing we’re working on right now.”
Mudd was especially pleased with Cleaver, who scored 13 second-half points and came up with a critical steal with 2:45 to go as Anderson County looked to get back in it.
“Sweets has just gotten tougher, even if she’s not scoring the ball and things aren’t going her way,” he said. “She’s still rebounding and playing defense and doing an excellent job. That’s just a part of her development. Her game is getting more consistent.”
Anderson County twice led by seven points — the largest lead for either team until the fourth quarter. The Lady Bearcats led 18-11 early in the second quarter and took a 34-27 lead after opening the third period on a 13-4 run.
But the Lady Panthers never panicked. They ended the first half on a 12-3 run for a 23-21 lead at the half before seizing the lead for good in the final 4:06 as Cleaver scored on a putback.
“I think it shows we’re getting tougher,” Boley said of the comebacks. “That’s something we’ve worked on, being tough as a team, and I think it showed today.”
Elizabethtown made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 53 seconds as it won the tournament for the first time. Junior guards Livie Bowling and Darien Huff, who combined for nine points and four rebounds, joined Cleaver and Boley on the All-Tournament Team.
Winning a tournament like this is certainly nice, Mudd doesn’t want the success to go his players’ heads. They know they still have room for improvement, and Mudd is confident they will only get better.
After all, Mudd said, it is just December.
“We’re getting better,” he said. “This is a very prestigious tournament with a lot of great teams in it, but it’s December. Let’s keep it in perspective and have a great Christmas and get ready to go to Naples.”
ELIZABETHTOWN51, ANDERSON COUNTY 42
Elizabethtown 11 12 11 17—51
Anderson County 15 6 17 4—42
Erin Boley 19, Reauna Cleaver 15, Darien Huff 5, Jada Stinson 5, Livie Bowling 4, Rachel Warden 3. FG: 21-47. FT: 6-9. 3-pointers: 3-9 (Huff 1-3, Boley 1-2, Warden 1-2, Kinsey Mudd 0-2). Rebs: 36 (Cleaver 13, Boley 12). Assists: 8 (Bowling 3, Warden 2). Steals: 4 (Huff 3, Cleaver 1).
Makenzie Cann 19, Eriel McKee 11, Destiny Stewart 6, Jessica Rice 3, Corrin Robinson 3. FG: 16-51. FT: 1-2. 3-pointers: 9-27 (Cann 4-11, Stewart 2-5, McKee 1-3, Robinson 1-3, Rice 1-2, Kaci Currens 0-2, Alex Avritt 0-1). Rebs: 27 (McKee 13, Cann 4). Assists: 11 (Cann 5, Rice 2). Steals: 3 (Rice 1, Avritt 1, Robinson 1).
UP NEXT: Elizabethtown plays Bel-Nor (Mo.) Incarnate Word at 5 p.m. Dec. 30 in the Naples (Fla.) Holiday Shootout.
Josh Claywell can be reached at 270-505-1752 or email@example.com.