By Mike Marsee
Special to WCPO.com
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Newport Central Catholic had its chances, but the Thoroughbreds also had their hands full.
Facing the top-ranked team in Kentucky, the Thoroughbreds couldn’t quite make it all the way back from a nine-point deficit in the final five minutes Wednesday, and they fell to Butler 54-52 in the first round of the Girls Sweet Sixteen.
NewCath had come from behind in the second half to win all three of its games in the 9th Region Tournament, and the Thoroughbreds rallied once in this game after facing a similar deficit in the early going, but twice proved to be too much to ask against a Butler team ranked No. 1 in Kentucky in the final Associated Press poll of the regular season.
“We knew this one was going to be tough. They’re the No. (1) team in the state for a reason, but we sure gave them a run for their money,” NewCath coach George Stoll said. “We battled the entire game; they just made a couple plays toward the end, made some big shots. But we were right there.”
NewCath (29-5) was within three points and had a chance to tie the game after Miss Basketball candidate Nicole Kiernan scored on a putback with 19 seconds remaining and the Thoroughbreds got the ball back two seconds later on a turnover.
But Alexus Mayes’ shot from the right side of the key missed the mark, and Butler’s Danielle Lawrence rebounded and hit one of two free throws with seven seconds left to effectively put the game out of reach.
“We ran two different sets for flare screens, and they did a good job getting over top of them. So at that point we wanted to try to set a high screen and just penetrate and kick and just have a chance to make a play,” Stoll said. “It kind of broke down a little bit, and we just ended up getting off a dribble jump shot. It wasn’t the best shot in the world, but at that time you’ve got to take the best shot that comes available.”
Kiernan led NewCath with 19 points and 15 rebounds, and Michaela Ware had 15 points.
Lawrence scored 19 points to lead Butler (29-3), the 6th Region champion.
NewCath shot 48 percent (22 for 46) from the field but struggled at the free-throw line, where the Thoroughbreds were just 6 for 16.
“Six of 16’s not very good is it?. We definitely missed way too many free throws,” Stoll said. “When you play against good teams, when you get layups, you’ve got to knock them down, free throws, you’ve got to put them in, too. ... But there’s a million things that I could say ‘what if’ about this or that.”
The Bearettes forced the Thoroughbreds into 17 turnovers, and while Stoll said that was more than he would have liked — he said seven is the goal and about 13 would have been acceptable against a team with a press like Butler’s — he thought NewCath held up well against their defensive pressure.
“I thought we handled it pretty well,” he said. “We turned it over in the half-court too many times, too, and that’s what hurt us. Any run that they went on, we handled it.”
NewCath trailed 47-38 with 5 1/2 minutes remaining, then got back in the game with two layups by Ware and two free throws by Kiernan. Ware answered a Butler basket with another layup after nearly losing the ball under the basket, making it 49-46 with 2:43 to play.
It was 52-48 when Butler turned the ball over with 39 seconds left, and Ware had an open lane to the basket but missed a layup. After Fontasia Jeffries hit one of two free throws for the Bearettes, Kiernan scored at :19 and the Thoroughbreds got the ball back at :17 thanks to a bad Butler pass.
“We started pressing a little bit, trying to turn them over to see if it would change anything, but they’re tall and athletic,” Ware said. “No one believed in us, and we just came out as strong as we could, but it didn’t go in our favor.”
Butler led 13-5 midway through the first quarter, but NewCath cut the deficit to three points by the end of the period, stayed close in the second quarter and tied the game for the first time with 1:02 left in the first half on a 3-pointer by Mikayla Seibert.
The Thoroughbreds took their first lead 18 seconds into the second half on a jump shot by Mayes and led by as many as three points, and the lead changed hands five times in the third quarter before a 3-pointer by Lawrence put the Bearettes up for good at 41-38 with 16 seconds left in the period. That was part of a 10-0 run that gave Butler its largest lead at nine points.
The Thoroughbreds’ loss marked the final game for Kiernan, the 9th Region player of the year who ends her high school career with more than 1,850 points and more than 1,000 rebounds.
We’re going to miss her, but I’m sure there’s a lot of other teams that are happy that she’s going to be gone,” Stoll said. “She was fortunate enough to come down here her freshman year, and I’m so glad that she was able to come back down here this year with us.”
BUTLER (29-3): Miah Casey 0-2 1-2 1, Breia Torrens 2-4 0-0 5, Danielle Lawrence 5-8 7-11 19, Jaelynn Penn 4-9 0-0 9, Allison
Just 1-7 0-0 3, Fontasia Jeffries 4-6 1-2 11, Micaiah Bowden 2-8 2-2 6, Madison Winebrenner 0-2 0-0 0, Janna Lewis 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 18-49 11-17 54.
NEWPORT CENTRAL CATHOLIC (29-5): Stephanie Lewis 1-1 0-1 2, Alexus Mayes 2-7 1-6 5, Nicole Kiernan 8-18 3-4 15, Ansley Davenport 2-4 0-0 4, Michaela Ware 7-13 1-2 15, Mikayla Seibert 1-1 0-0 3, Loren Zimmerman 1-2 1-3 4, Sarah Neace 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-46 6-16 52.
3-pointers—Butler 7-15 (Torrens 1-2, Lawrence 2-3, Penn 1-3, Just 1-2, Jeffries 2-4, Winebrenner 0-1), NewCath 2-8 (Mayes 0-3, Kiernan 0-2, Davenport 0-1, Seibert 1-1, Zimmerman 1-1). Fouled out—Mayes. Rebounds—Butler 29 (Lawrence, Penn 7), NewCath 33 (Kiernan 15). Assists—Butler 9 (Torrens, Lawrence 3), NewCath 7 (Lewis 4). Total fouls—Butler 16, NewCath 16.