HARLAN — The Bell County girls are headed to the 13th Region championship game for the first time since 1996. Sophomore guard Maci Morris scored 34 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on Saturday as the Lady Cats held on for a 65-56 win over Whitley County in the semifinals.
“We’re just tickled to death to have that opportunity. These girls have put in a lot of time in the preseason and throughout the season and they’ve earned the right to have a shot at it,” said Bell coach David Teague.
Bell led by as many as 18 points in the second quarter, but the Lady Colonels closed the gap to 11 by halftime and got as close as 43-42 after Brandi Smith hit two free throws late in the third quarter and two more early in the fourth.
When the Lady Cats need a play they usually turn to Morris, and more often than not she comes through. She immediately answered with a drive down the lane for a basket. Whitley missed the front end of bonus on two occasions and Bell got two free throws each from Jess Sanders and Morris to stretch the lead back out to 49-42 with 5:12 to play.
From that point the Lady Cats hit 14-of-18 free throws to close out a nine-point win.
“We had talked a lot about Maci and Jess penetrating down in there and not always necessarily looking to score but also finding people,” Teague said. “I don’t think there are many that can guard them off the dribble and once they get in there the defense has to collapse and they can kick it out for shots or get fouled and get to the line. Really, that’s all we did in the second half was put the ball in their hands and let them go with it.”
Sanders finished with 15 points while Morgan Garnett added six and Kelli Smith five for Bell. Morris was a perfect 16-for-16 from the line in the game and the Lady Cats were 28-for-32 as a team.
Whitley was led by Brandi Smith’s 26 points while Maria Johnson finished with 12, Bethany Powers nine and Kandace Craig seven.
“We just did not have the excitement in practice that we had Tuesday. I knew on Tuesday that we would win (Wednesday against Clay County) and I told our coaches that,” Lady Colonel coach Larry Anderson said. “I just didn’t feel it in practice on Friday and I didn’t feel it during warmups. We just didn’t have that pep in our step today.”
Garnett got the Lady Cats off to a fast start with a 3-pointer for the first points of the game and Morris added a basket to make it 5-2. Whitley got a four points each from Brandi Smith and Powers to close within 11-8, but Kelli Smith hit a 3 for Bell and Sarah Collins hit a jumper. Six free throws from Morris put Bell up 22-13 after one.
Whitley County was unable to connect from long range for most of the game and hit just three 3-pointers in the contest. It was 24-15 when the Lady Cats went on a 9-0 run to take command.
Sanders started it with a runner off an inbounds play and a Kelli Smith steal led to a Morris layup. Sanders hit a 3 and another steal led to a breakaway basket for Morris and Bell lead was 33-15 with 3:40 to go in the half.
“Whitley had shot the ball lights-out against Clay and we couldn’t throw one in the ocean against Lynn Camp (in the first round). It was kind of the reverse of that today and it was big for us to make those shots and come out with the early lead and build some confidence,” Teague added. “Whitley is a very good shooting team and they look for the (outside) shot a lot. Our girls did a good job of staying focused on trying to take that away.”
The Lady Colonels got two 3-pointers from Maria Johnson as they closed the gap to 35-24 by halftime.
“Bell County came out and played a heck of a game. They were very aggressive offensively and they were aggressive in their defense. They kind of took us out of things by being aggressive,” Anderson added. “We did a good job coming back, but it seemed like it took so much out of us. We missed a lot of free throws and sometimes that comes from being tired.”
Whitley forced the Lady Cats into seven turnovers in the third quarter while Brandi Smith scored 10 points, including six free throws, as the Lady Colonels worked their way back into the game.
“Our focus and intensity was there throughout halftime, you just have to give Whitley credit. They’re a good basketball team and they started hitting some shots and forced us into some turnovers,” he said. “They really tried to be physical with Maci in the second half. Once they started fouling we just had to knock down free throws and we did a very good job of that.”
Morris scored 12 of her points in the fourth quarter and Sanders went 8-of-10 from the line as the Lady Cats pulled away down the stretch.
Whitley County ends the season with a 20-11 record. They lose just two seniors: Powers and forward Sabrina Sizemore as well as coach Anderson, who is stepping down.
“The sun will come up tomorrow and we’ll go on living. Somebody will come in to coach them next season and I hope they win it all, to be honest with you,” he said.
Bell County (27-5) will take on Corbinin the championship game at 7 p.m. on Monday. The Lady Redhounds got past host Harlan County 47-43 in Saturday’s late semifinal. The Lady Cats won both of their meetings with Corbin handily this season, but those game were back on Nov. 29 and Dec. 4.
“Corbin is a very guard-oriented team and they play a lot like we do, they like to get it up and down the court. They’re a very well-coached team and they’ve been playing very well of late,” Teague said. “It’s going to be a tough match-up and that’s what you expect this time of year.”
— — —
Bell County…22…13…8…22 — 65
Whitley Co….13…11…16…16 — 56
BELL COUNTY (65): Maci Morris 34, Jess Sanders 15, Morgan Garnett 6, Kelli Smith 5, Paige Robbins 0, Sarah Collins 4, Katrina Johnson 1.
WHITLEY COUNTY (56): Brandi Smith 26, Maria Johnson 12, Bethany Powers 9, Kandace Craig 7, Sabrina Sizemore 0, Hallie Jones 2, Taylor Dingess 0.