Some may consider the Simon Kenton Pioneers (19-14) a surprise team in the girls basketball state tournament that begins Wednesday at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
But it many ways, it is not. The Pioneers showed some potential throughout the season with big wins over the likes of Ryle, Notre Dame, Montgomery County and Spencer County. Simon Kenton put some things together like those games in knocking off the 32nd District rival Grant County Braves (20-11), 66-55 in the Eighth Region championship Sunday at Gallatin County.
Simon Kenton takes on 2nd Region champion Henderson County Colonels (26-4) on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. at Rupp Arena. The two have one common opponent in the Louisville Male Bulldogs from the 7th Region. Henderson County beat Male, 58-56 in its second game of the season on Dec. 3 in the Independence Bank Tip-Off Classic at Owensboro Catholic. Male beat Simon Kenton, 57-39 exactly two weeks later in the White, Greer and Maggard Holiday Classic at Lexington Catholic.
Simon Kenton beat Grant County in the third, but most important match-up of the season after losing the other two in Independence. The Pioneers lost to the Braves, 45-42 on Jan. 7 in the district seed game then 47-45 on Feb. 23 in the district championship game.
“I’m very happy. They did exactly what I wanted them to do and what I needed them to do,” said Brenden Stowers, Simon Kenton head coach. “Box out and rebound was number one on our list. Force them into tough shots and secure the ball was the game plan going in.”
But in this one, Simon Kenton took the lead for good in the second quarter. The Pioneers did it consistently attacking the rim, finishing tough shots and drawing 27 fouls seeing three Braves foul out. The Pioneers made five three-pointers and 27-of-38 free throws.
That led to balanced scoring with four Pioneers hitting double-digits. Eighth grade point guard and all-tournament selection Brynli Pernell led the way with 18 points running the offense well again. She hit three big three-pointers and made some crucial steals on defense. Pernell came into the region semifinals averaging 11.5 per game.
Senior forward Emilee Eggleston helped the Pioneers built the lead in the second quarter scoring 10 of her 12 points on two three-pointers. Freshman forward/guard Anna Kelch also had 12 points. Kelch and freshman guard Megan Gadzala also made the all-tournament team.
“It was very nice. It was like a cushion for us. But we still had to work for the second half because we’d had two close games with them,” Eggleston said. “This time, we knew we had to do what we had to do to be region champions. It is an amazing feeling hearing the crowd (erupt). We put in the work this summer, during practices and we executed during the games.”
Then in the paint, Simon Kenton freshman forward and tournament most valuable player Haylie Webb scored 11 points battling Grant County senior power forward Emily Naranjo and the other Braves posts. Webb credits the current teammates and her older sister Sereniti, a senior on last year’s team, for lessons about doing a lot of dirty work in the paint on both ends.
Naranjo finished with 15 points to lead Grant County before fouling out. The University of the Cumberlands commit averaged 11.4 points per game entering the region tournament.
“(Naranjo) is really big and she knows how to work (inside),” Webb said. “But I was taught to work in there too so it was a good battle. (Seriniti) tells me I’m not always going to get the ball. But I just have to work in there, rebound and just do what I can.”
The Pioneers mainly wanted to contain Grant County’s leading scorer in sophomore shooting guard Jada Cummins, who averaged 12.4 entering the region tournament, pressuring the Braves all over the court trying to use their speed. Simon Kenton held her to five points before fouling out after she scored 15 and 23 points in the previous two meetings.
Grant County made just 14-of-26 free throws to go with three triples off 19 Simon Kenton fouls. Only Eggelston fouled out for the Pioneers.
The Braves saw others try to pick up the slack offensively. Sophomore guard Caroline Barnes scored 12 and junior wing Sarah Russell scored 11.
Simon Kenton led by four points in the first quarter before Grant County came back to tie at 13. But the Pioneers scored the first five points of the second quarter to go up 18-13 with 6:14 left in the half after a Webb free throw.
The Pioneers led 22-18 when Eggleston hit her first big three and Kelch made two free throws with 2:19 left in the half to put Simon Kenton up 27-18. Naranjo had to sit for the rest of the half picking up her third foul with 4:08 left.
“In the first two games of the (region) tournament, we settled for a lot of outside shots,” Stowers said. “Our focus was to put them in situations where they got in foul trouble. We did that and it came out on our side (Sunday).”
Webb hit two free throws with 1:04 left in the half to put Simon Kenton up 32-23. After Barnes made a hoop and two free throws cut the lead to 32-27, Gadzala made a free throw with 10 seconds left to put Simon Kenton up 33-27 at halftime.
“(The key) was just finishing,” Stowers said. “The first time we played them, we missed 11 lay-ups. The second time we missed nine so our focus was get to the rim high and soft. If it comes soft off the rim, I’ll take that because we can rebound that. That gives us a chance to get them up and get them in. We executed exactly what we needed to execute.
The Pioneers started the third quarter off on the right foot when Pernell made two baskets to make it 37-27 Pioneers with 6:08 left in the third quarter. After Grant County cut it to 37-31 with 4:10 left in the quarter, Simon Kenton slowly extended the lead to double figures at 45-34 after sophomore guard Rylie Flynn made a three-point play.
“I just know I have to do it for my team,” Pernell said. “It just gives me the opportunity to have myself under control not even for me, for my seniors especially. I think our team handled (having the lead) well. We’ve been in those places many times so I feel like we’ve known how to do it.”
Simon Kenton built the lead to 47-34 with 1:35 left after a Kelch lay-up. But Barnes trimmed it to 47-38 as time expired in the third quarter with the hoop and foul missing the ensuing free throw.
The lead stayed in the eight to 11-point range until the middle of the fourth quarter when Grant County cut it to seven. But Webb scored and Gadzala made a free throw to put Simon Kenton up 59-49 with 2:04 remaining.
With less than two minutes left, Russell hit a three to cut the lead to 59-52. But Simon Kenton made 5-of-6 free throws to ice the game after that.
This marks the sixth region championship in school history for the Pioneers. Stowers’ dad Jeffrey led Simon Kenton to Eighth region championships in 2008, ’09, ’15, ’17 and ’18. The Pioneers are 2-5 in state tournament history making it to the state quarterfinals in 2009 and ’17. The 2009 team lost 54-44 to state semifinalist Casey County and the 2017 team lost 51-49 to eventual state runner-up Franklin County.
GRANT COUNTY — 13-14-11-17 — 55
SIMON KENTON — 13-20-14-19 — 66
Grant County (55) – Naranjo 15, Barnes 12, Russell 11, Rowe 9, Cummins 5, Scroggins 2, Ginn 1
Simon Kenton (66) – Pernell 18, Kelch 12, Eggleston 12, Webb 11, Gadzala 7, Flynn 6