From the opening tip Saturday evening, Eastern girls basketball coach Josh Leslie didn’t like his team’s intensity.
Doubt Elizabethtown fans would complain about how junior guard Whitney Hay and the rest of the Lady Panthers came out in their anticipated rematch with the Eagles.
Hay, who has five NCAA Division-I offers to her credit, buried a trio of deep 3-pointers early to jump start Elizabethtown’s 70-53 decimation of the Eagles during the third game of the Bluegrass Cellular New Year’s Classic at Central Hardin.
“I just came out looking to score and looking to hit my teammates,” said Hay, who was named Player of the Game after scoring a game-high 28 points. “If someone’s not guarding me as hard as they should or if people aren’t helping, I think I can take my man and I can just keep getting to the basket and scoring.”
Elizabethtown (15-2) was able to turn the tables on Eastern (8-5) after the Eagles earned a 69-58 win over Elizabethtown on Dec. 20 in the second round of the Queen of the Commonwealth at Bullitt East.
“Energy. We had a lot of energy the last time we played,” Leslie said of the major difference in the two meetings with the Fifth Region powerhouse Lady Panthers. “This looked like exactly what it was: We’d been off for about a week and out of the routine of school and drive an hour-plus on the road.”
Hay scored 11 of her team’s 16 first-quarter points.
“And that tells you where our focus was,” Leslie said. “If and when their best player is able to score 18 in the first half, we’re not focused and we’re not ready to play. Our whole thing was to try and limit her touches and try to make it hard on her and we never did that. We gave her freedom of motion and freedom of movement and gave her open shots.”
Elizabethtown never again trailed after of a 6-5 deficit in the opening five minutes.
“We just lost her in transition,” said Eastern senior forward Mikayla Kinnard, who scored a team-high 20 points.”We pressed and then after the press, we lost her a few times and then she got in a rhythm. Good players, once they get in a rhythm, it’s kind of hard to stop them from there.”
Hay didn’t need to get to the basket, though. None of her four 3-pointers on the night were close to the line and two of which were NBA range.
“I have a green light,” said Hay, who entered Saturday shooting better than 40 percent from the arc. “My dad is the only one who complains and says I go out too far.”
Hay couldn’t complain about all the help she got. When Hay was tormenting Eastern, junior forward Sydney Clark was scoring 13 points, junior guard Ellie Taylor was scoring 10 and senior guard Amirr Evans was scoring seven.
Summing up Leslie’s complaints about intensity, Elizabethtown sophomore guard Presley Payne, the shortest player on the floor, pounced on a lazy inbound pass at the end of the third quarter. She chased it down and raced in for a layup that just beat the buzzer to give the Lady Panthers a 49-37 lead
“When we came out and we weren’t making shots, everyone kind of got discouraged and it all went from there,” said Kinnard, who will play at the Division-I level at SIU-Edwardsville.
Vanderbilt-bound senior guard Kiara Pearl and sophomore forward Marissa Gasaway each scored eight points for Eastern, which has only played once at home so far in 13 games and has four straight road games looming with Oldham County, Ballard, Bullitt East and Bardstown.
Leslie said it will be nice to get back into the school routine and that this grueling schedule should pay dividends in February and March.
“We’ll be OK,” Leslie said. “It prepares us. In those 13 games, we’ve played 10 ranked teams. So we’ve played, by far, the toughest schedule.”