By Conor Revell
FRANKFORT, Ky. – Presentation’s basketball team had a much better experience at this year’s All “A” Classic State Tournament than it did at last year’s, but it’s still looking for its first win at the event for Kentucky’s small schools.
The Toppers got into foul trouble, fell behind in the third quarter and never recovered while losing 60-51 to Walton-Verona in the first round Wednesday night at the Frankfort Convention Center.
“Last year we were overwhelmed by the spotlight,” Pres head coach David Jackson said. “And we faced a very, very good Murray team. But this year we were better matched and I think we played better having gone through it last year.”
Last year Murray demolished the Toppers 65-20 in the opening round.
“We didn’t know much about Murray going into the tournament ,” Pres junior guard Lilly Stephenson said. “We quickly found how good that team was. This year we knew about Walton-Verona. We knew this team had lost to a team that we lost to and beat a team that we beat. We felt like we were evenly matched, but we were unable to get the win.”
The teams were tied at 23 at the half, but the Toppers couldn’t get the ball in the basket after the break and found themselves in a 44-31 hole in the third quarter.
It didn’t help that starters Courtney Jackson, Lauren Nunnelley, Julia Vogt and Stevenson all were in foul trouble.
“When Lilly picked up her fourth foul, I was like, ‘This isn’t good,’ ” said Dara Jackson, Pres’ only senior. “Lauren (Nunnelley) had some. Then I got mine in the fourth quarter and my sister was also in foul trouble with three fouls. I felt like we had to play soft for a little bit because we were in foul trouble.”
The Toppers (12-11) started pressing and went on a 13-5 run to cut the lead to 49-44 with 3:34 to go on a jumper by Stevenson.
Walton-Verona (15-5) pushed the lead back to 55-45 before Pres cut it back to five. But the Toppers never got any closer.
“In the first half we gave up 11 offensive rebounds,” David Jackson said. “They got 10 points off that. In the second half we only scored five points in the third quarter. I’m not really sure what happened. That and the beginning of the fourth is where they got that lead. I’m proud of our kids for fighting back and I thought they would. But you have to score more than five points. We held them to 12 and that allowed us to stay in the game.”
Hailey Ison was clutch down the stretch for Walton-Verona and hit 10 of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Ison came into the game averaging 25.4 points and 8.8 rebounds and torched the Toppers for 29 points, nine rebounds and five assists. Morgan Simpson pitched in 18 points for the Bearcats.
Despite picking up four fouls, Stevenson finished with 16 points, five rebounds and four steals to lead the Toppers.
Courtney Jackson added 10 points and eight rebounds. She sat out most of the second quarter with two fouls and was called for two more later.
Her older sister Dara added nine points.
“We couldn’t score in the third quarter,” Dara Jackson said. “We only scored five points in that quarter. We weren’t playing well. It was a really bad quarter. We weren’t being aggressive. We weren’t going to the basket.”
The Toppers lost the rebounding battle 35-28, but the game was won at the foul line. The Toppers made only 9 of 14 free throws to the Bearcats’ 18 of 27, including 15 of 18 in the second half.
While the Toppers are winless in three All “A” state tournament appearances, now their focus is on making it out of the KHSAA’s 25th District Tournament for the second straight year.
“Right now our goal is to get better for districts,” David Jackson said. “We have some really good games coming up. Our goal is to get better and to get back to the region. That’s the next big goal. It’s tough because Manual and Central are always sitting there waiting for us and Shawnee is playing really well right now. We still have something to work for.”
Last year Presentation made it to the Seventh Region Tournament for the first time since 2012.
And Stephenson has a message for next year when it comes to the All “A” Classic State Tournament.
“Experience definitely matters,” Stephenson said. “It’s a big goal. Last year coming here as a sophomore, I came off the bench. This year I got to start and now I feel more experienced. I feel like next year will be our year. We will win in the first round next year. We will, just wait.”
Walton-Verona will play Murray in the quarterfinals at 11:30 a.m. Friday.