Bullitt East proves it belongs with state’s elite

Veteran Bullitt East girls’ basketball coach Chris Stallings isn’t much on moral victories — he prefers actual wins on the hardwood — but that’s exactly what his plucky Lady Chargers earned Saturday morning.

Facing a team which was ranked in the top five in many preseason polls, the Lady Chargers pushed the George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals to the brink before falling, 73-66 in the opening semifinal of the 47th annual Republic Bank/Coca-Cola Consolidated Girls’ LIT at Christian Academy-Louisville.

Bullitt East took some heat on social media for being given a bye into the semifinals when their quarterfinal opponent, top-10 Boyd County, had to withdraw because of a snowstorm in the northeastern part of the state.

“You know, with our kids, we’ve played a tough schedule all year and we’ve kind of been under the radar some and I thought our kids battled,” said Stallings, whose program was the only one in the metro area to appear in the final four of one of the state’s perennial top regular-season tournaments.

Bullitt East battled back from separate five-point and six-point deficits in the first half to tie it before the break and rallied from a 12-point deficit to even take a brief lead in the final eight minutes.

“I was just proud of our team for coming back,” said Stallings, whose squad opened the tournament by rolling past Fern Creek before stunning Sixth Region rival Mercy in the second round. “I thought we did good.”

GRC (16-8), with three NCAA Division-I bound players in senior forward Hayley Harrison (Tennessee-Martin signee), junior guard Kennedy Igo (Northern Kentucky commit) and senior forward Maleaha Bell (Eastern Kentucky signee), never trailed in the opening 16 minutes and led 40-34 at the half. Igo (five) and Harrison (three) combined for eight 3-pointers in the first half, but were limited to just two after the break.

“In the second half, it was hard for me and Hayley to find shots from the 3-point line,” said Igo, who finished with a team-high 27 points while Harrison added 22 points. “They started out in a zone and after we started hitting, they went to a man.”

While Bullitt East (16-8) was much smaller than GRC, the Lady Chargers stayed competitive in the first half behind 20 points from junior forward Lexi Taylor.

“I think we showed that we’re not a joke and I feel like we came together as a team,” said Taylor, who holds an offer from NAIA Georgetown College and finished with a game-high 28 points. “We proved some people wrong because people felt we wouldn’t get this far and I think we really did that well.”

Bullitt East senior guard Emmy Ralph, limited to two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half, came alive in the second. Her old-fashioned three-point play gave the Lady Chargers their only two-point lead at 63-61 with 3:42 left in the game.

Ralph, an Indiana-Southeast signee, finished with 16 points, making 5-of-7 shots after halftime.“A lot of people discredit her because of her size and have overlooked her because of her size,” Stallings said of the 5-foot-5 Ralph. “But she’s hard to guard and she’s a nice player.”

GRC will play Northern Kentucky power Ryle in Sunday’s final after Ryle rallied from a 23-point first-half deficit to stun top-20 Lincoln County in the other semifinal.

The KHSAA Sweet Sixteen draw was held in late January and there’s a chance Bullitt East and GRC could meet again at State at Rupp Arena as their respective regions drew one another in the opening round.

“They (Bullitt East) are very scrappy and almost impossible to guard. We did a pretty good most of the time and got some big stops, but they hit some big 3s,” said GRC assistant coach Steve Anderson, who was in charge as GRC head coach Robbie Graham was out with the flu. “When they penetrate and they kick out, when you have basically five shooters on their floor, they’re very hard to guard. They were well coached and they run their stuff. They’re just hard to guard and they’re very scrappy.”