The Lady Devils quick turnaround of the program continued with another defining win on Monday, as they defeated Apollo 53-46 in the first round of the 9th District Tournament—securing them a spot in the 9th District Championship and a spot in the 3rd Region Tournament for the first time in a decade.
It was a back and forth start in a slow one to open up the 9th District Tournament, with the E-gals taking the early 9-7 lead with 3:26 to go in the first. However, Owensboro closed the quarter out strong and was able to take a 13-11 lead.
That lead didn’t last more than a minute into the third though, as freshman Abby Sapp jumped into the passing lane for an easy steal and layup to knot things up at 13-13. But the Lady Devils’ ball pressure and intensity on the defensive end was creating turnovers that they went on to score off of more often than not, helping them take a narrow 23-20 lead into the break.
The two teams continued to go blow-for-blow coming out of the locker room, with freshman Kennedy Lane getting a big and-one to even things up at 30-30 with 4:25 to go in the third. But for the remainder of the quarter junior A’Lyrica Hughes and Owensboro’s defense took over, creating steals leading to buckets time and time again to create a 9-2 run to close the quarter and take a 39-32 lead into the fourth.
Hughes had a barrage of steals and got multiple buckets amidst the run, helping the Lady Devils get the crowd going and start slowly adding onto their lead. This is a perfect recipe for Hughes, as Apollo Head Coach Natalie Payne said that when the junior guard is out in transition she and her team thrives.
“It’s no secret, she’s the best guard in the region in my opinion in the open court,” Payne said. “You can’t stop her unless you try to take a charge, but she’s so savvy and crafty that she’s going to step and go around you and find a way to get to the hole. She’s almost unstoppable in the open court.”
Sophomore Gizelle Whitlock and junior Jennifer Lee tried to be a spark and help Apollo make a comeback with a combined 14 points in the fourth—with Whitlock scoring nine of her 18 and Lee grabbing five of her nine on the night in the quarter—but the remainder of the team went scoreless in the quarter while Hughes’ eight points in the fourth helped push the Lady Devils to the 53-46 win.
The run to close the third quarter was a key factor in the win, as it started to swing momentum Owensboro’s way going into the fourth. Hughes played a huge part in the Lady Devils swinging momentum their way with 15 of her team-leading 26 points in the second half and timely plays on both sides of the ball, while getting plenty of help from her teammates as well.
“We want to put the ball in her hands, but it can’t just be her,” Locher said. “It’s gotta be the team around her. Defensively I thought Unique played really well. She had a tall task to stay with Lane all night long. Just tried to keep the girls in front, keep the ball out Lane’s hands and we did a good job for the most part. We told them they’re going to go on runs and we’re going to go on runs, but we just have to go on the bigger run.”
While former E-gal turned Owensboro senior K’Asia Palmer (11 points) was the only player on the night in double figures along with Hughes, it was a team effort on both ends that helped them come away with the win. Especially on the defensive side of the ball, where the Lady Devils had control of a fast-paced game created by their fullcourt pressure.
“We felt that we could wear them down,” Locher said. “They just don’t have a lot of their players that are playing right now, so we kind of took advantage of that and felt like we had more energy in the second half. But they hit some big shots. Lane again is a beast, Whitlock hit some shots for them and Lee is a big presence.”
Payne agreed with the notion, as their lack of depth has been something that has hindered the team late in the season—especially when facing teams that can apply intense fullcourt pressure throughout the entirety of the game like Owensboro.
“We have a six-person rotation and I think they do get worn down,” Payne said. “I think they get tired and that’s been tough on us the last part of the season with the injuries and the sickness and all of that… They’re able to get easy baskets off of that and it wears on you. Kudos to them. They had a nice gameplan, they stuck to it and played well together as a team.”
The Apollo coach went on saying that Owensboro seemed to want it more as well, making sacrifices to earn possession time and forcing 23 E-gals turnovers en route to the win.
“I think what stands out to me the most is that they won all the hustle plays,” Payne said. “If we go and tally them I’m sure they won 90% of the hustle plays. The loose balls, 50-50 balls, [if there were] balls on the floor they were theirs. So that was disappointing. That stood out and just our ability to take care of the basketball.”
Apollo’s season comes to a close with them owning a 8-22 overall record, while finishing 0-7 in district play. Senior guard Gracie Survant is the lone player that won’t return to the E-gals, someone that Payne and company will miss.
“Just really proud of her leadership and her toughness,” Payne said. “She’s fought through mono the last part of the season. Probably didn’t even know she had it for a period of time. She was cleared this morning to play… She was super excited about that so that she didn’t have to end her senior year not being able to play in the district tournament. I love her. She’s a fighter, she’s very coachable and she’s a team player.”
For those that were returning, Payne preached hard work one last time in the 2022-23 campaign. She stressed to the team the importance of focusing on working to become a more complete player during the offseason, so that the E-gals can return stronger for next year.
“If you want to excel at this game and not just be an average ball player, you’ve gotta devote your time to a lot of other parts of the game besides just being able to hit an open shot,” Payne said. “You’ve gotta be able to handle the basketball against pressure. You’ve gotta be able to see the open man and have your head up. You’ve gotta be able to lock down and defend and keep people from getting around you. There’s a lot of toughness things we’ve been preaching all year long and with a young team I’ve seen some growth, but we were not where we needed to be against teams like Owensboro.”
On the other hand the Lady Devils now sit at 19-9 overall and will have the chance to compete for a 9th District Championship against the Lady Aces. This is a program defining moment for Locher and Owensboro, as they secure a chance for some hardware in the 9th District and a chance at more in the 3rd Region Tournament.
Having not been in the 3rd Region Tournament in almost a decade, it brought a smile to Locher’s face hearing his team celebrating from the top of their lungs in the locker room during the postgame interview.
“It’s awesome,” Locher said. “I love it for those girls. Some of those girls that are seniors were with us when we won five games in a season and everybody was beating us by 20 or 30 points… That was our goal at the beginning of the year. We wanted to compete for a district championship and get into the region tournament, because we know once we get on the Sportscenter floor anything can happen.”
The Lady Devils will take on Owensboro Catholic at 7 p.m. on Thursday, as they will look to break the 1-1 season-series tie and bring home a 9th District Championship. Locher is confident in his team’s will to win and is looking forward to making some noise as the postseason continues.
“This team fights,” Locher said. “They fight and they’re just a joy to be around. They never get down and we’re never out of a game no matter what. Come region tournament time hopefully we’re a team that other teams are kind of shaking about playing.”