Similarities and differences. Sometimes that’s the yin and yang teams have to contend with when they’re about to play in a big tournament like Kentucky’s vaulted high school Sweet 16.
It’s also what Marshall County’s girls will encounter against Pikeville on Thursday in the second day of the girls state basketball tournament at Rupp Arena.
“They’re kind of like us,” senior guard Layne Pea said. “They have guards, they have bigs. They have variety in their team just like us.”
The Lady Panthers are the 15th Region champions after defeating Johnson County Central for that title, 53-38. It marked the third consecutive year Pikeville has taken the region’s crown to get to play in the Sweet 16.
Last year, Pikeville lost a heartbreaker to Casey County, 49-46. The year before, they fell to Barren County, 65-47.
The similarities between the Lady Marshals (22-2) and Lady Panthers (25-5), Marshall coach Aaron Beth pointed out, is in their guard play and 3-point shooting skills. Marshall point guard Cayson Conner leads the team in scoring with her slashing abilities to the basket for 13.1 points per game. Pea and fellow senior Presley Jezik are watchful for their offensive opportunities, but are mainly key to clamp down on opponents’ offenses. Meanwhile, junior Jada Driver has a 44.7 shooting percentage on threes by going 55-of-123 from long range.
Pikeville features two 5-foot-5 freshmen guards, Trinity Rowe and Kristen Whited, who are among the scoring leaders for their club. Rowe averaged 15 points an outing, and Whited added 10.2 from inside and out.
“Rowe reminds me of a young Macey Turley,” Beth said, recalling the former Murray standout. “Shoots a jump shot, very under control, makes great passes.”
A main difference is in their physical presence in the post, which Beth said Marshall County hasn’t really encountered. Senior Mackenzie Maynard is 5-10 and averaging 11.7 ppg while also pulling 7.3 boards a game. Other pillars down low are 5-9 junior Kylie Hall, who averages 6.4 ppg and the same amount of rebounds, and eighth grader Isabella Mulkey, a 6-footer. All three bring some heft to their positions.
“I think our bigs are a little more athletic, but they’re a little more physical,” Beth said, noting 6-2 junior Halle Langhi, who has averaged 12.6 points and 8.1 boards this season, and Sophie Galloway, a 6-1 track standout who returned to basketball after sitting out a year and transferring to Marshall.
“We’re going to have to be ready for a physical battle,” the coach added.
Beth commented about Langhi’s improvement from sophomore to junior. While she averaged just over two more points a game as a sophomore, she has a firmer grasp on her role.
“She’s a totally different player now than she was last year, as far as confidence and knowing her role and blocking shots on the defensive end,” he said. “She’s always been able to score, but I think she’s a lot like Cayson in the unselfish aspect of it. She throws it back out as much as she turns and shoots it when we throw it inside.
“When they know you’ll make the extra pass and can’t focus on one player to shut us down, that has a lot to do with why we’ve been so successful this year.”
Defense has been the Lady Marshals’ bread and butter, ranking first among team defenses in the state holding teams to an average 33.9 points per game. In their three First Region tournament games, they held Paducah Tilghman, Graves County and McCracken County to a combined average of 25.3 points.
“It takes a lot of commitment and discipline and toughness to go out and hold people to low scores night in and night out,” Beth added.
Countering that, the Lady Panthers’ forte is scoring. They are 24th among Kentucky prep teams in scoring at 62.2 points, but also rank 31st in defense by allowing teams 43.2 points on average. In their regional title game, Pikeville held Johnson Central scoreless in the third quarter while going on a 15-point run themselves.
Beth said his team has to focus on not giving up open 3-point shots or offensive rebounds, which he said they did in the regional final against McCracken County.
“You can’t do that in close games and give up extra possessions,” he said. “I think our defense is something they haven’t seen. Hopefully that’ll be a positive for us and have to make them make decisions and not just do what they want to do.”
The tip on Thursday at Rupp Arena is 10 a.m. CDT.