Un­fin­ished busi­ness awaits top con­tenders for the ti­tle

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - Basketball - BY JOSH MOORE

Mercy Academy last sea­son was on the wrong side of a his­tor­i­cally lop­sided girls’ bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship game, but tak­ing one on the chin might just pay off.

The Jaguars — who fell to two-time de­fend­ing cham­pion Mercer County, 74-34, in the fi­nals in March — were ranked first in the Her­ald-Leader’s pre­sea­son sur­vey of girls’ bas­ket­ball coaches. Ta’Ziah Jenks, a pre­sea­son top-five player who av­er­aged 16 points and 7.2 re­bounds as a sopho­more, will look to lead Mercy’s de­fense of the 6th Re­gion ti­tle; the Jaguars have not re­peated as a re­gion champ since 1992, when they won their first state ti­tle as a mem­ber of the 7th Re­gion.

Clark County, the two-time de­fend­ing 10th Re­gion champ, was the sec­ond-lead­ing voteget­ter. The Car­di­nals reached the Sweet Six­teen semi­fi­nals last sea­son, also fall­ing to Mercer County, and re­turn four of their five starters from last year’s state tour­na­ment.

Ryle, the reign­ing 9th Re­gion ti­tlist, was ranked third by the coaches. Sa­cred Heart and Scott County rounded out the top five at fourth and fifth, re­spec­tively.

TOP 25 TEAMS (Last sea­son’s record in paren­the­ses)

1. Mercy (25-10): Four of the Jaguars’ top four scor­ers re­turn this sea­son, among them Syd­ney Rivette, who along with fel­low se­nior Ja­lyn Shorter will be re­cov­er­ing from ACL surgery un­til Jan­uary. Jenks has re­ported of­fers from sev­eral col­leges, in­clud­ing WKU, Mar­shall and Xavier.

2. Clark County (28-8): Se­nior Hay­ley Har­ri­son and ju­nior Kennedy Igo were both ranked in the pre­sea­son top 10 by the coaches, mak­ing Clark County one of two pro­grams with that dis­tinc­tion this sea­son. The Car­di­nals are hunt­ing for their first state ti­tle, and the sec­ond ever by a 10th Re­gion cham­pion; Ni­cholas County’s in 1993 is so far the only one.

3. Ryle (29-7): The Raiders are the other pro­gram that can wave the “two top-10 play­ers” flag, thanks to Lau­ren Schwartz (a se­nior com­mit­ted to Rice Univer­sity) and ju­nior Mad­die Scherr, a top-25 na­tional re­cruit and a fa­vorite to win Miss Bas­ket­ball in 2020.

4. Sa­cred Heart (29-6): Mercer County was the only in-state team to hand the Valkyries a loss last sea­son — and Heart was the only one to get the Ti­tans, later — be­fore Man­ual spoiled their bid for a state ti­tle in the fi­nals of the 7th Re­gion Tour­na­ment. Sa­cred Heart lost nine se­niors, in­clud­ing now-In­di­ana-fresh­man Grace Berger, but is a pro­gram that can al­ways be counted on to be in the mix.

5. Scott County

(31-3): The Car­di­nals won 21 straight games be­fore Man­ual held their state-best of­fense (78.2 ppg) to only 45 points in a first-round de­feat at state. Lead­ing scorer Pey­ton Rid­dle grad­u­ated but a stout quar­tet led by Miss Bas­ket­ball chal­lenger Maaliya Owens (15.6 ppg, 5.7 re­bounds as a ju­nior) should ease the pain.

6. Lin­coln County (24-7): With Mercer County ex­pected to take a step back in the 12th Re­gion, most think it’s the Pa­tri­ots’ turn to take the reins. They gave the Ti­tans all they wanted in a 67-64 semi­fi­nals loss in last year’s re­gion tour­na­ment and played sev­eral top-10 teams close through­out last sea­son. They also have Miss Bas­ket­ball fa­vorite Emma King, a Univer­sity of Ken­tucky com­mit.

7. El­iz­a­beth­town (34-3): Clark County ended an im­pres­sive sea­son by the Pan­thers, who handed Mercy its big­gest de­feat last sea­son prior to the state fi­nals (80-49 at Mercy). Whit­ney Hay, a ju­nior who’s been of­fered by sev­eral mid-ma­jor pro­grams, is E-town’s only im­me­di­ate re­turn­ing starter but the Pan­thers hope to see Leikyn Walker (12 points, five re­bounds as a ju­nior) re­turn from ACL surgery late in the sea­son.

8. Boyd County (29-5): Miss Bas­ket­ball con­tender Sa­van­nah Wheeler — a Mar­shall com­mit who led the state in three-point makes last sea­son and is this year’s only re­turn­ing first-team All-State se­lec­tion — grabs the head­lines but sopho­more Har­ley Payn­ter is a bud­ding star as well; she av­er­aged 14.7 points as a fresh­man, has an of­fer from WKU and has taken an un­of­fi­cial visit to UK.

9. Owens­boro Catholic (27-8): The Aces have won four of the eight 3rd Re­gion cham­pi­onship games played this decade but haven’t re­peated as the re­gion champ since go­ing back-to-back in 1985 and 1986. Ten­nessee Tech com­mit Mackenzie Keelin, who led Owens­boro Catholic with 13.5 ppg last sea­son, will lead an ex­pe­ri­enced group look­ing to end that streak.

10. But­ler (24-5): A good bet? Ei­ther Mercy or But­ler is win­ning the 6th Re­gion this year, as one of the two has won the re­gion ti­tle each year since 2010 (the Bearettes have the edge, 6-3). Jas­mine El­der, a 5-foot-9 se­nior who’s com­mit­ted to In­di­ana State, av­er­aged 13.1 ppg last sea­son and 5-8 se­nior Jaida Wig­gins was right be­hind her at 11.1 ppg.

Coaches’ next 15: 11. Male (23-9); 12. Mercer County (36-3); 13. South Lau­rel (26-6); 14.

Man­ual (22-9); 15. An­der­son County (27-6);

16. Camp­bell County (29-4); 17. Casey County (26-7); 18. Mur­ray (32-3); 19. Si­mon Ken­ton (2011); 20. East­ern (20-8); 21. John­son Cen­tral (20-13); 22. Chris­tian Academy of Louisville (11-16); 23. Con­ner (23-9); 24. Paul Lau­rence Dun­bar (22-10); 25. As­sump­tion (11-20).

TOP 25 PLAY­ERS

1. Emma King, Lin­coln County (Sr., 5-11, 20.6): Mercer County’s Sey­gan Robins was a lock to win Miss Bas­ket­ball en­ter­ing last sea­son. Could this year’s lead­ing vote-get­ter keep the crown in the 12th Re­gion? King, a 5-foot-11 stand­out who’s com­mit­ted to the Univer­sity of Ken­tucky, led the Pa­tri­ots to the 12th Re­gion semi­fi­nals, where they fell to Robins’ Ti­tans last sea­son.

2. Mad­die Scherr, Ryle (Jr., 5-11, 16.2): She has more than a dozen re­ported schol­ar­ship of­fers, among them UK, Louisville, Ge­or­gia, Ore­gon and Florida. Scherr, ranked 25th na­tion­ally in her class by ESPN, shot 48.7 per­cent from the floor last year for the Raiders, who reached the quar­ter­fi­nals of the

Sweet Six­teen.

3. Sa­van­nah Wheeler, Boyd County (Sr., 5-7, 24.7): Might she be the big­gest threat to King in this sea­son’s Miss Bas­ket­ball race? The Mar­shall com­mit led the state with 108 made three-point­ers last sea­son and was ninth in scor­ing. She led Boyd County to the Sweet Six­teen semi­fi­nals, and the Lions are fa­vored to make a third straight trip to state on her watch.

4. Shelby Cal­houn, Chris­tian Academy of Louisville (Jr., 5-11, 20.5): An­other na­tion­ally-ranked class of 2020 prospect — she’s 29th over­all in ESPN’s rank­ings — might not be as widely known among fans due to the Cen­tu­ri­ons’ lack of team suc­cess; they went 11-16 last sea­son against a bru­tal sched­ule in the 7th Re­gion. Col­lege coaches have no­ticed, though:

UK, In­di­ana, Ten­nessee, Duke and Ohio State are among the dozens of schools after her.

5. Ta’Ziah Jenks, Mercy Academy (Jr., 6-0, 16.0): She in­creased her of­fen­sive out­put to 22 points a night over Mercy’s run in the state tour­na­ment, which ended at the hands of Mercer County in the fi­nals. If you ig­nore her nine-point ef­fort from that 74-34 loss, that Sweet Six­teen av­er­age would’ve ended as an eye-pop­ping 27 points per game.

6. Hay­ley Har­ri­son, Clark County (Sr., 5-10, 12.0): Clark County brings back a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence from a team that reached the Sweet Six­teen semi­fi­nals, fall­ing to the even­tual champs. Har­ri­son, who com­mit­ted to Ten­nesseeMartin dur­ing last year’s reg­u­lar sea­son, leads a trio of se­niors that also in­cludes fu­ture col­lege

7. Maaliya Owens, Scott County (Sr., 5-9, 15.6): It’s rea­son­able to ex­pect Owens’ scor­ing and re­bound­ing (5.7) to swell after the de­par­ture of lead­ing scorer Pey­ton Rid­dle, who led the team in both cat­e­gories last sea­son. She has com­mit­ted to Ten­nessee Tech.

8. Kennedy Igo,

Clark County (Jr., 5-7, 11.5): Igo made 40.1 per­cent of her three­p­oint at­tempts last sea­son for the Car­di­nals, who ranked third statewide as a team at 37.7 per­cent. She will start at point guard for the third con­sec­u­tive sea­son.

9. Cameron Brown­ing, Male (Sr., 6-1, 14.8): The Bel­mont com­mit was among the state lead­ers in shoot­ing with a 57.7-per­cent clip from the field and was in range of av­er­ag­ing a dou­ble-dou­ble at 8.5 re­bounds a night.

10. Lau­ren Schwartz, Ryle (Sr., 5-11, 17.6):

Her ju­nior team­mate is more na­tion­ally known but it was Schwartz who led Ryle in scor­ing and re­bound­ing (7.6) last sea­son. The duo will try to win the 9th Re­gion one more time be­fore Schwartz, a Rice Univer­sity com­mit takes off to Texas.

Coach’s next 15: 11. Nila Black­ford, Man­ual (Sr., 6-1, 13.1); 12. Whit­ney Hay, El­iz­a­beth­town (Jr., 6-0, 19.2); 13. Jada Hig­gins, Knott County Cen­tral (Sr., 5-9, 14.5); 14. Ally Col­lett, South Lau­rel (Jr., 5-6, 19.6); 15. Cas­sidy Rowe, Shelby Val­ley (Fr., 5-5, 9.9); 16. Ivy Turner, Danville (Sr., 5-6, 24.1); 17. Erin Toller, Sa­cred Heart (Jr., 5-6, 10.3); 18. Ken­dall Win­gler, Meade County (Jr., 5-10, 25.4); 19. Aaliyah Hamp­ton, Chris­tian County (Sr., 5-7, 13.9); 20. Jas­mine El­der, But­ler (Sr., 5-9, 13.1); 21. Destyne Jack­son, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass (Sr., 5-8, 26.0); 22. Mikayla Kin­nard, East­ern (Sr., 6-0, 13.9); 23. Mackenzie Keelin, Owens­boro Catholic (Sr., 6-0, 13.5); 24. Ash­lee Har­ris, Sa­cred Heart (Sr., 5-6, 6.5); 25. Emma Hacker, Menifee County (Sr., 6-2, 21.7).

FOUR OF THE MERCY JAGUARS’ TOP FOUR SCOR­ERS RE­TURN THIS SEA­SON.

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