BOWLING GREEN – The shots Hopkinsville wasn’t supposed to make put Marshall County in an early hole, and the ones the Lady Tigers were expected to make saved them when the Lady Marshals dug their way out of the hole.
The result was a 56-52 win for Hopkinsville Thursday in a first-round game of the girls’ Sweet Sixteen basketball tournament at E.A. Diddle Arena.
A rally carried the Lady Marshals from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter to a one-point lead with just over a minute left to play, but Hopkinsville closed out the game with a 5-0 run to seal the win and advance to the second round.
A trio of three-point baskets, two by Haley Cook and one by Trina Cager, helped Hopkinsville pull away from a 16-16 tie after the first quarter into a 31-26 halftime lead.
Then, after the Lady Marshals fought back and took a 52-51 lead late in the game, 5-11 Christy Soldo came through with an offensive rebound and putback basket and a pair of free throws in the final minute of play to clinch the win for Hopkinsville.
“We gave them open shots in the first half, and they converted,” Lady Marshals coach Joseph Simmons said. “In the second half, there at the end of the game, they got big rebounds. Our girls battled and we gave ‘em a fight to the end.”
It ended a solid season for Marshall County in Simmons’ second year after replacing the legendary Howard Beth, the state’s winningest coach in girls’ basketball.
In an earlier meeting between the two teams, Hopkinsville depended on its inside game and leading scorer Christy Soldo. The barrage of long-range shots gave the Lady Tigers the momentum.
The perimeter assault was done for the night after the first quarter, but a rash of missed shots and turnovers by Marshall County, combined with the steady work of Soldo, enabled Hopkinsville to expand the lead to 40-26 in the first three minutes of the second half.
Marshall County began to steadily work at cutting into the lead, and perseverance paid off.
Mariah McKenty, who hit four three-point shots and led the Marshals with 15 points, nailed two of her long jumpers during the steady comeback run. Tory Fehrenbacher also had a three-pointer during the rally.
Freshman Alyssa Barnard wrestled a rebound away from Hopkinsville after McKenty misfired on a three-pointer and muscled the ball back up and in, putting the Lady Marshals ahead at 52-51 with 1:09 left to play.
The lead was short-lived. Soldo, who has committed to play at Murray State next year, rebounded a missed shot and put it back in, putting Hopkinsville back in front.
The Lady Marshals had one more chance to regain the lead, but Taylor Meadows’ three-point shot missed and Hopkinsville rebounded with 15 seconds to go. Marshall County, with only four team fouls, had to commit three quick ones to put Hopkinsville on the line.
Trina Cager misfired on the front end of the one-and-one with 12 seconds left, but Soldo got the rebound. She was fouled, and sank two clinching free throws.
Soldo led all scorers with 24 points. Cook added 12.
Hopkinsville, 32-4, advances to the quarterfinal round against Marion County, a 56-49 winner over Walton-Verona.
The Lady Marshals end their season 27-9.
Marshall County, which shot 90 percent from the free-throw line in winning the First Region tournament, struggling, making only seven of 17 shots against Hopkinsville.
But the early shots from the perimeter and the Lady Tigers’ rebounding in the final minutes were the key factors, both coaches agreed.
“They came out and they were making everything they threw up,” Simmons said.
“The first time we played ‘em, I think they were one for eight from three. Our goal was to pack it in and recover out to the shooters.”
“That’s the key for us,” Hopkinsville’s Tonya Wells said. “When we can hit shots, then it takes a lot of pressure off Christy. If you don’t hit shots, they’re gonna put three people on Christy. So that was huge for us.”
Simmons took consolation in the team’s comeback and in their overall performance this year.
“A lot of teams would have folded tent and just been happy to be here and that would be it,” he said. “I think that says a lot about the character of our girls.”
Simmons also reflected on the experience of the state tournament, for his players and for himself.
“With me not being from Kentucky,” the Arkansas native said, “this was my first experience to come to the Sweet Sixteen and I’m glad I got to do it with these girls.
“It’s been a two-year absence for Marshall County from being here, and they took a lot of pride at the start of the year, they wanted to be the group that got us back.”