The last time Natalie Payne was preparing for the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen, she was playing for the E-gals. When she takes the court today, she’ll be on the sideline as Apollo takes on Henderson County in the first round at Rupp Arena.
The E-gals and Colonels hit the court at 5 p.m. EST as the two foes are all too familiar with each other being just 29 miles apart.
Henderson County beat Apollo 50-33 earlier this season as the E-gals struggled to score and didn’t have a player in double figures.
Payne said the fact that they’re playing the Lady Colonels makes the game that much more interesting.
“I’m just really excited about the matchup, honestly, because we are so familiar with each other,” she said. “I take it as this is exciting, this is a really unique opportunity. It’s a team that we play every year but we sometimes play them twice a year. Even in the summer when we go to different camps, we play each other. It’s kind of neat and I’m excited about it because we do know more about their personnel than what we would know if we played a team out east or someone in the Louisville area. I’m looking forward to it.”
Sadie Wurth leads HC in scoring at 13.6 ppg as Jarie Thomas is right behind her at 12.6 ppg but the Lady Colonels have gone as Wurth goes this season.
In their last matchup, Apollo held the senior standout to just two points.
Payne said the two teams are similar as their role players can step up at any time.
“They have a great supporting cast for Wurth,” Payne said. “She kind of leads them in some categories and she helps control the tempo but I’m really impressed with Kemp. She does a lot for them, just guarding the other team’s best player and shutting kids down. She takes pride in that and she’s just a gusty player. Then they’ve got Thomas inside. She’s got the length on their press and she’s just an animal on the board. Dixon and what she brings with her post presence. Then defensive specialist in Hubbard. Then they’ve got kids off the bench that come in and can light it up. They go about eight deep and each kid when they come in, they don’t fall off and they understand their role. They understand what coach wants them to do on the floor and they’re an extension of him.”
Most teams would want to know their identity as early in the season as possible so they can get accustomed to that style of play.
For the E-gals, that identity wasn’t there then but it’s been a focal point of their gameplan the last few weeks.
Since their dominant win over Graves County, their next game after their loss to Henderson, the E-gals have only allowed opponents to score more than 40 points twice.
Payne said she wanted defensive pressure to be their identity.
“Honestly, I hoped and prayed that would be our ticket and our way and that the kids would finally understand and realize that defense wins,” she said. “It took us a while to get there but I’m just so happy we are there and the kids do, they understand. They understand that’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. Everything in between revolves around our defense and our rebounding.
“Early on, we weren’t that team and it showed because we were inconsistent. Now being shut down had a lot to do with it too but once we were able to get consistent reps, the kids were really able to see how much defense pays off.”
Payne said for them to take down the Lady Colonels, they need to stop them on consecutive possessions, limit offensive rebounds and also limit transition buckets.
“They’re so good at getting out and running and they’re so good with their second-chance points,” she said.
Apollo will have five seniors take the court Thursday and Payne said no matter the outcome, they’ve left their mark.
“The seniors are the heart and soul of this program, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of watching them grow over the past four years,” she said. “Coming into this season, there were so many unknowns. We weren’t sure if we would actually have a full season. The seniors decided early on, that we must stick together and fight through whatever obstacles came our way. COVID ripped a month of our season away from us. Looking back, it may have been a blessing in disguise because I feel like it made us appreciate our time together. In the midst of all of the illness and injuries, the seniors learned that sacrificing for each other is the ultimate win.
“As a coach, that’s what you dream of. This team has definitely left their legacy, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
Apollo and Henderson County are scheduled to start a 5 p.m. EST.
Apollo v Henderson County
Time: 5 p.m. EST
Location: Rupp Arena, Lexington
Live Stream: NFHS Network (subscription required)