GIRLS' SWEET 16 TOURNAMENT OPINION: Lady Panthers making it look easy (3/16)

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By Chuck Jones

BOWLING GREEN — State tournament games shouldn’t be easy, but the Elizabethtown Lady Panthers are making it look that way at Western Kentucky’s E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Lady Panthers built a 37-24 halftime lead against Louisville Sacred Heart, which pulled within three in the third quarter, but they pulled away for a 76-61 victory Thursday night.

The next night, Elizabethtown used a similar pattern against Anderson County, taking the drama out of match-up of top-ranked teams. It built another double-digit halftime lead and coasted to a 58-37 win.

On Saturday night, George Rogers Clark hung close. Well, for 11 minutes anyway. Which has been longer than previous opponents at the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16, or so it seems. That’s when the Lady Panthers turned a two-point lead into a 40-26 halftime lead in a span of 4:40.

Game over.

The end result was a 71-56 victory and a date with Louisville Butler in today’s championship game. Sure, the Lady Cardinals cut the lead to eight in the third quarter, but for all practical purposes this game was over at halftime, which has been the case for the Lady Panthers during this state tournament run.

“It might look easy, but it wasn’t easy at all,” Elizabethtown junior center Reauna Cleaver said. “We’ve played really good teams and we’ve had to play well to win. We’ve played well the first two games and we did tonight after the first quarter.”

It’s impressive that the Lady Panthers are doing it with only one senior on the roster, but how they’re doing it makes it even more remarkable.

Against Sacred Heart, it was an offensive explosion in the first half. Sophomore Erin Boley and Cleaver started it and everyone followed suit as all five starters scored 10 or more points.

The Lady Panthers, who shot a red-hot 56.3 percent from the field, turned an early four-point deficit into an 11-point lead in the blink of an eye. Once they had it, they never relinquished it, hitting big shots every time Sacred Heart tried to mount a rally.

Although the pattern was strikingly the same, the Lady Panthers turned to their defense to completely fluster and frustrate Anderson County, including Miss Basketball candidates Makenzie Cann and Eriel McKee, who never were able to get on track.

This time, junior guards Darien Huff and Livie Bowling set the tone on the top of the 2-3 zone. If the Lady Panthers did make a mistake and a Lady Bearcat found her way to the paint, Cleaver erased it, blocking five shots and altering at least that many more. Anderson County shot a woeful 22.6 percent.

This time, it was just a combination of the two. The Lady Panthers forced 10 turnovers and turned them into 18 points – in the first half.

Elizabethtown’s offense clicked on all cylinders – outside of a lackluster third quarter that is. The Lady Panthers scored inside and out. Sophomore guard Rachel Warden and Huff combined for five 3-pointers, while Boley and Cleaver dominated inside, like the previous two state tournament games as Elizabethtown has outscored all three opponents in the paint.

“It speaks to the versatility of our team,” Warden said. “We have had everyone step up for us at different times. With some teams, you try to stop this person or that person. With us, everyone can score.

“Before we’d get down on ourselves if we weren’t playing well, but I think we’ve matured through this process.”

This team has grown up right before our eyes. What was a bunch of youngsters hoping to win a state championship has become an older and wiser group determined to win the program’s second state title.

It hasn’t been a simple process to get to this point. There have been growing pains along the way, but that has shaped and molded this team to the one we see before us.

The Lady Panthers have a golden opportunity to do something special today.

It won’t be easy, but a winning state title never is.

No matter how they’ve made it appear so far.

Chuck Jones is the sports editor for The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.