BY MATTHEW SPARKS
THE DAILY INDEPENDENT
RUSSELL There’s no air of mystery when it comes to Russell’s suffocating defense.Greenup County found it difficult to solve during the 63rd District championship game on Thursday night.
The Lady Devils’ havoc-inducing full-court pressure overwhelmed the Lady Musketeers, allowing just four field goals and forced 28 turnovers in a 59-18 victory at Marvin Meredith Gym.
“We really worked on our defense the last two days (in practice),” Russell coach Mandy Layne said. “We knew they wouldn’t be able to handle our pressure. The referees really let us play tonight. We got up in the passing lanes. It was once again a great defensive effort.”
It was the third straight district title for Russell. Madison Darnell led the charge on both ends of the floor. She posted a double-double with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
The senior, who exceeded 2,000 points earlier this season, got to corral the hardware one last time after she played her final game on her home floor.
Darnell said she kept the last championship game played at Russell fresh on her mind for extra motivation.
“I will never forget the last time we played here against Lewis County,” Darnell said. “I really wanted this one. I didn’t want to lose here again. That was my mindset.”
Ty Mitchell is the conductor for Russell’s defensive engine. She initiated three offensive fouls on the Lady Musketeers and had a hand in several Greenup County miscues. Her energy bleeds into her teammates.
“That’s been true since we started playing together in the fourth grade,” Darnell said. “It’s great.”
“We told her to get good position and to beat her to the spot,” Layne added. “I thought she did a really good job of that. We have been working on running and jumping. We did a great job of rotating. I was happy because that is greatly improved since the beginning of the year.”
Greenup County grabbed its only lead on Bailey Robinson’s triple to open the contest. Russell proceeded to end the first quarter with a 14-2 run. Darnell opened with eight points in the frame.
Lady Musketeers coach Keith Roark said the game was part of the learning process for his young team.
“(Russell) was the aggressor and they are physical,” Roark said. “We didn’t get into our cuts tonight early. You could tell people were just mentally not there. It’s natural letdown from the other night (against Lewis County). Russell is a really good team. It’s our first district championship to be part of. We don’t have any seniors. We are pretty young,and we’ve had some challenges this year.”
Russell’s Malia Blevins nailed a 3 from the corner as time wound down in the first half. Gracie Haywood beat the buzzer with a layup, but Greenup County (10-18) still trailed 27-13 at the break.
A 13-2 spurt to begin the third stanza opened the flood gates for Russell. Mitchell started the streak with consecutive buckets and Rachel Michael’s 3 increased the margin to 25 with 2:00 remaining in the quarter.
Eleven players found the scoring column for Russell (22-9). Lakie Sanders recorded double figures with 14 points.
“We all know that we get our offense through our defense,” Darnell said. “We wanted to play as hard as we could on defense.”
The Lady Devils held the Lady Musketeers scoreless in the final quarter to win their 21st district game in a row.
“It’s just awesome,” Layne said. “As I told my seniors, I am just so excited and happy for them. I told my kids for next year that we want to continue this tradition.”
Both teams advance to the region tournament next week in Morehead. Greenup County will be making the trip for just the second time since 2003.
“We are going to get a district winner,” Roark said. “(Russell) is a region contender. We have played a tough schedule. I really haven’t cared about the wins and losses. It just how to we get better every day. I feel that’s what you have to do to build a program.”
Haywood led the Lady Musketeers with eight points.