UNPREDICTABILITY OF REGIONAL TOURNAMENTS TRANSFORM MARCH INTO MADNESS

Anderson girls a strong favorite for third straight crown but Eighth Region boys a wide open affair

By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com

Anderson County’s Amiya Jenkins drives against Spencer County’s Lexi Runion and Daveigh Reichenbach during the 30th District championship game at Spencer County High School on Feb. 25. (Photo by Stephanie Herndon)

I love March Madness.  Absolutely love March Madness.

And for me, the high school version is much better than the college game that will be on wall-to-wall TV in a few weeks. In my book, the high school game is better and it ain’t even close.

Then add to the fact that Kentucky is one of the last to have a free-for-all for one trophy proclaiming one champion and, well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like early March in the Bluegrass.

As the sports writer-editor-flunkie for The Anderson News, I covered Anderson County basketball for 34 years. By extension, I was well-known around the Eighth Region and have made many friends throughout that golden triangle that is roughly bounded by Interstates 64,71 and 75. 

And over the years, I have seen some memorable teams. Some made deep runs at the state tournament. Some didn’t make it out of the region. There have been some memorable nights – I still marvel about that night in 2013 when the Anderson County girls erased a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation, then beat Simon Kenton in overtime for the regional crown – and there have been some nights that simply can’t be explained.

Unless, of course, you just realize the totally unexpected is just part of March Madness in the Bluegrass.

And I have learned that every town in Kentucky has its favorite March stories. 

As a kid I experienced Jimmy Dan Conner leading Anderson County to its first Sweet 16 trip in 1971. As a high school sophomore, I was manager of the next Bearcat team to win a regional title – I still have the little gold basketball and a piece of the net we cut that night. The following year, I watched as some of my best friends played in the first game of the revived Girls’ Sweet 16. 

As writer for my hometown newspaper, I covered two boys’ and three girls’ teams that made it to the Sweet 16. And I wrote about more heartbreaking losses to end a season than I really want to remember.

Since retiring from The Anderson News at the end of 2018, I have been fortunate to attend games in different areas of the state. I’ve heard the cool stories and seen some of the cool venues.

And I have learned if you want to get an old-fashioned debate going, ask about the best regional tournament venue in the state. Chances are it’s going to come down to Henry County in the Eighth Region or Mason County in the Tenth. Your answer is likely influenced by where you live.

Since COVID became part of our lives, I have been fortunate to stay close to the Eighth Region and have seen most of the region’s best teams at least once this year. There are some definite trends to watch for in both the girls’ and boys’ tournaments.

The girls’ tourney gets underway Monday night at Grant County and the road to Rupp Arena goes through Anderson County. Of course, anyone who remotely follows the girls’ game knows that anyway.

If Anderson takes care of business, it’s hard to see anyone other than the Lady Bearcats cutting down the nets Saturday night. The Lady Bearcats have arguably the best player in the state in Amiya Jenkins and have capable weapons in all five spots. What the Lady Bearcats don’t have is the enormous depth they had the last two years when they advanced to the Elite Eight and Final Four.

But unpredictability is what turns March into Madness. If the Lady Bearcats have a cold shooting night when the opponent is sizzling or if foul trouble depletes them, they can be upset.

Anderson got the most difficult first round draw possible when the Lady Bearcats were paired with Simon Kenton. The Pioneers have rebounded to have a good season and Coach Jeff Stowers is stepping down at season’s end. Could he pull one more rabbit out of his hat?  We shall see.

On the other side of the bracket, Spencer County and Walton-Verona should have a good one Monday night while Owen County has been rolling along after winning the All-A Classic in January. 

But in the end, if anyone keeps Anderson from becoming the first Eighth Region program to win three straight titles since Oldham County in 1988-90, it would be a major surprise.

On the boys’ side, it is just the opposite. When the action tips off Wednesday at Henry County, it figures to be the most wide-open affair in years. Defending champ Oldham County has been humming along all season, despite graduation taking a heavy toll from last year. The Colonels (19-10) defeated North Oldham for their third straight district crown and 12th in 13 years. 

Woodford County (25-5) has the region’s best record and has been ranked in the state’s Top 10 at times this year. Collins (22-6) had the region’s top RPI, given by the state, but lost to Woodford in overtime in the 30th District final. 

Collins’ Kenyon Goodin shoots over Woodford County’s Jasper Johnson in the 30th District final, won by Woodford, 56-53 in overtime, on Feb. 26 at Spencer County. (Photo by John Herndon.)

And then North Oldham (15-12) was the preseason favorite but has battled injuries at different times this year. The Mustangs have a very difficult first round game with Walton-Verona, which has won eight straight and is ranked third in the region in RPI.

It’s wide open with some intriguing matchups. For example, Collins starts off with a dangerous Owen County team. Owen isn’t considered a top contender but boast the region’s top player in junior Taegan Moore.  Moore has the potential to light up anyone and in a one-and-done tournament, can carry a team. 

I saw the Owen-Collins game in December. The scoreboard showed that Collins claimed a 67-49 win. What the scoreboard does not show is that it was a four-point game with five minutes to play. 

The contenders have been beating each other all season and this week will be no exception. Who knows who will cut down the nets on March 8?

Girls’ Eighth Region Tournament

All games at Grant County High School

Feb. 28: Owen County vs. North Oldham, 6:30 p.m.; Walton-Verona vs. Spencer County, 8 p.m. March 1: South Oldham vs. Henry County, 6:30 p.m.; Anderson County vs. Simon Kenton, 8 p.m.

March 5: Semifinals, 6:30 and 8 p.m.

March 6: Finals, 7 p.m.

Boys’ Eighth Region Tournament

All games at Henry County High School

March 2: Owen County vs. Collins, 6:30 p.m.; Walton-Verona vs. North Oldham, 8 p.m.

March 3: Oldham County vs. Gallatin County, 6:30 p.m.; Woodford County vs. Grant County, 8 p.m.

March 7: Semifinals, 6:30 and 8 p.m.

March 8: Finals, 7 p.m.

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