There’s something about 10th Region Tournaments for Robbie Graham and the George Rogers Clark girls’ basketball team.
The 1988 Fleming County graduate is in his sixth season as the head coach of team, and he’s preparing for the team's third trip to the Sweet Sixteen during that stretch, where the Lady Cardinals will take on Harlan County at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.
“When you have great kids it makes it easy. I have really great kids that work hard and buy in and try to execute everything without hesitation,” said Graham. “It’s all about the kids. I give them all the credit. I’ve coached great kids throughout the six years, so give them all the credit.”
Before taking over the program, Graham was an assistant on the boys’ staff at GRC under Scott Humphrey, and before that, he was an assistant under Lake Kelly at Fleming County.
“I’ve been fortunate to work for two really good coaches with Lake Kelly and Scott Humphrey. They’re defensive minded coaches, teach defensive toughness and the value of working hard,” said Graham. “Both coaches - something I learned from both - is pay attention to detail, because little things not being taken care of lead to big things.”
He also had success as a player in the postseason, notching 88 points in the 1987 10th Region Tournament. It wasn’t enough to claim the title, however, as Fleming County fell to Mason County in the final, 77-67. The 88 points were the third-most in a single tournament at the time, before Scott’s Jake Ohmer scored 104 last year. He knows from his experience that everybody needs to just do what they can, and that’s something he’s tried to pass along – and something that seems to be working.
“In those kind of environments, you’ve got to be you," said Graham. "You don’t have to be magical to be special, just be you.”
Graham became the head coach of the girls’ team at GRC during the 2012-2013 season and the Lady Cardinals claimed the 10th Region title the following year, ending Montgomery County’s three-year run. The Lady Cardinals won the first two games of the state tournament that year, before falling to Elizabethtown, 71-56, in the semifinals.
The next year GRC made it to the regional final, before falling to Mason County. Two years ago they were ousted by eventual 10th Region champion Campbell County in overtime during the semifinals.
But last year the Lady Cardinals were able to overtake Mason County in overtime, 56-53, behind a 22-point performance from freshman Kennedy Igo. GRC knocked off Harlan in the opening round, before meeting with Mercer County, who went on to win the state championship.
With the top five scorers from that team returning – Igo, Shemaya Behanan, Hayley Harrison, Jasmine Flowers and Maleaha Bell – the Lady Cardinals were expected to make another run to the state tournament.
“I think it put a lot of pressure on the girls. We were very highly ranked in preseason. I don’t put a lot of stock in preseason rankings, but we were very highly ranked,” said Graham. “We played tight a lot of the season, but we kind of hit our stride a little bit and our scheduled is extremely tough. It’s not like we’re playing nobodies.”
GRC went 21-7 during the regular season, before claiming the 40th District title. At the 10th Region draw on Feb. 24, the Lady Cardinals were the first team on the bracket. The second – meaning the other district champion on the top half – was Campbell County, who earned the No. 3 ranking in the state.
The Lady Cardinals cruised by Nicholas County, 69-36, in the quarterfinal, while Campbell County blew out Bracken County, 98-20, setting up a semifinal meeting between the two. GRC held the Lady Camels to just 15 points in the first half, before holding on for the 51-48 victory.
The Lady Cardinals beat Scott, 68-56, in the championship game after a hot start from Harrison.
Now, GRC awaits an opening round game against Harlan County, winners of the 13th Region.
The Lady Black Bears beat North Laurel, 78-51, in the regional final behind a 32-point performance from Blair Green, who averages 26 points per game and will continue her playing career at the University of Kentucky.
“She’s really, really good. She signed with the University of Kentucky. They’re not signing kids that can’t play,” said Graham. “She’s a really good player going to powerhouse team. She’s a good player. I saw them a little bit this summer. She has all the tools. Players like that score points. You’re not going to shut them out. You hope they get 26, 27 and you don’t let them get 35 or 40 points and have a career night.”
Kaylea Gross adds another 14.8 points per game, while Carmen Cox and Phebe McHargue each contribute over eight.
The only girls’ team from the 10th Region to win a state title was Nicholas County in 1993. Clark has played in the title game three times – in 1991, 1989 and 1921 – and will look for their first title this year.
“I think anytime that your school can accomplish something like that it’s tremendous. First it would be for the girls. Coaching something like that would be the thrill of a lifetime. It brings the community, the county together, it brings school camaraderie. It would be a tremendous thing,” said Graham. “But we also know how hard it is. It takes a lot of luck. If it was easy everybody would be doing it. There’s 16 teams you have to go through. It’s not easy. We’re aware of that and it’s something we’re striving for.”
Here’s a look at the other opening round matchups of the 2018 St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen:
Johnson Central vs. Owensboro Catholic
The Lady Eagles (20-12) will open the girls’ Sweet Sixteen at noon on Wednesday against Owensboro Catholic. Johnson Central claimed the 15th Region title by beating Pikeville, 56-51, at the East Kentucky Expo Center on Saturday. They feature two players that average double figures in Ashley Belcher (12.1 PPG) and Jana Jarvis (10.4 PPG), while Sammi Sites and Alaina Castle each average over nine points. Owensboro Catholic (26-7) came away with a 55-45 victory over Muhlenberg County in the 3rd Region championship game at the Owensboro Sportscenter on Sunday to earn a berth in the state tournament after a one-year absence. The Lady Aces have four players averaging double digit scoring in MacKenzie Keelin, Sarah Clemens, Ellie Mitchell and Hananh McKay.
Elizabethtown vs. Bowling Green
Elizabethtown (33-2) and Bowling Green (20-12) will meet in the second game of the tournament, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The state No. 5 Panthers claimed the 5th Region with a 58-28 win over Bardstown in the championship game, after surviving overtime with Nelson County in the semifinals. Elizabethtown, playing in its fourth state tournament in five years, is led by Whitney Hay’s 19.5 points per game, while Leikyn Walker adds 11.7 and Karson Knight and Tanisia Murphy each average over nine. The Purples were 4th Region champs, knocking off South Warren, 59-51, in the final. Keely Morrow leads Bowling Green with 22.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, while Taylor Ragland adds 11.8 points on average.
Murray vs. Mercer County
Mercer County (32-3) will look to claim its second straight state title in its fourth straight trip to the tournament. The state No. 2 Lady Titans’ Sweet Sixteen journey starts with Murray, the fourth-ranked team in the state, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Of Mercer County’s three losses, only one was to an in-state opponent. They lost to Sacred Heart, 83-48, in the championship game of the Louisville Invitational Tournament, but won’t have to worry about the Valkyries, as they fell in the 7th Region championship game. The 12th Region champions are loaded with talent, most notably Seygan Robins, who averages 14.8 points and will continue her playing career at the University of Louisville. Emma Souder, who’ll be heading to college at Northern Kentucky University, averages 12.7 points and 7.6 rebounds. Emma Davis and Lexy Lake both average nine points, while Faith Lake adds another 7.2 per game. Murray (32-2) returns for the third straight year after claiming a 51-42 victory over Graves County in the 1st Region championship. The Lady Tigers have three players averaging over 14 points per game in Macey Turley (17 PPG), Alexandria Mayes (15.4 PPG) and Alexis Burpo (14.9 PPG).
Mercy vs. Knott County Central
Mercy (22-9) claimed the 6th Region title with a 64-48 win over North Bullitt in the championship game to earn a date with Knott County Central (24-9) at noon on Thursday in the opening round of the Sweet Sixteen. The Jaguars have three players averaging double figures in Taziah Jenks (14.9 PPG), Regan Berger (10.8 PPG) and Hope Vivori (10.3 PPG). Jenks also grabs 7.4 rebounds per game. The Lady Patriots claimed a 48-45 victory over Hazard in the 14th Region title game and are led by Jada Higgins and Breanna Harrington, who average 14.5 and 12 points per game, respectively. Allie Ohair adds another 9.9 points per game, while Kamryn Thornsberry chips in with 8.7.
Scott County vs. DuPont Manual
Scott County (31-2) returns to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. The Lady Cardinals are ranked sixth in the state and have won 21 straight games, most recently beating three time defending 11th Region champion Franklin County, 77-54, to punch their ticket. Scott County is led by Peyton Riddle, Maaliya Owens and Morgan DeFoor, who average 16.2, 16 and 14.8 points per game, respectively. They’ll meet up with DuPont Manual (21-8) at 1:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Lady Crimsons claimed a 55-52 win over Sacred Heart, the top-ranked team in the state, for the 7th Region title. DuPont Manual has three players averaging double digit scoring in Jaela Johnson (17.1 PPG), Nila Blackford (13.2 PPG) and Tyonne Howard (10.8 PPG), while Aniah Griffin adds another 9.8 points per game. Scott County beat DuPont Manual on Jan. 11, 76-53.
Boyd County vs. Webster County
Boyd County (27-4) will make a second straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen after topping Ashland Blazer, 55-52, for the 16th Region title. They’ll take on Webster County (28-6) at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Lady Lions are led by Savannah Wheeler’s 25 points per game, while Harley Paynter adds 14.5 points per game. Charity and Payton Shears each average over eight points a night. Webster County topped Christian County, 45-32, for the 2nd Region title – their first since 1998. The Lady Trojans have three players averaging double figures in Jessica Winders (12.6 PPG), Karlie Keeney (11.1 PPG) and Marissa Austin (10.1 PPG).
Ryle vs. Simon Kenton
Two teams separated by 8.8 miles of roadway will meet in the final game of the first round, scheduled for 8 p.m. on Thursday. Ryle (28-6) topped two-time defending 9th Region champion Holmes, 69-41, for their first trip to the state tournament. The Lady Raiders are led by the duo of Lauren Schwartz and Maddie Scherr, who average 17.6 and 16.2 points, respectively. Scherr brings down 7.6 rebounds per game, while Schwartz grabs 7.5 per game. Simon Kenton (20-10) will be playing in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time in four years. The Lady Pioneers beat Anderson County, 80-68, for the 8th Region title. Morgan Stamper leads Simon Kenton with 14.3 points per game, while Shelby Harmeyer and Maggi Jones are right behind with 13.6 and 13 points per game, respectively. The two met twice during the regular season, with Ryle taking both meetings. The Lady Raiders won, 71-54, on Nov. 30 and won again on Jan. 19, 58-53.