Lady Cards return to Elite Eight following fast start, timely defense

Published 11:27 am Thursday, March 9, 2023

The George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals (27-7) entered Wednesday night’s 2023 KHSAA Sweet 16 Girls Basketball contest at Rupp Arena with a challenging task ahead.

Not only were they looking to defeat Region 12 champion Mercer County (21-14), but they were attempting to do so for the second time this year following a 54-48 victory on February 3.

In the end, they overcame adversity.

Email newsletter signup

The Lady Cards jumped out to a quick start offensively and used a solid defensive fourth quarter to defeat the Lady Titans 51-43 and advance to the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.

“We had a good first quarter there to start out well,” said GRC Head Coach Robbie Graham. “[In the] fourth quarter, I felt like we played [with] a little bit more fire. The ball was moving, and offensively we got some better shots.”

Wearing their visiting red uniforms, the Lady Cards came out with a fury.

After falling behind 4-0, they went on a 19-3 run led by 7 points from Brianna Byars that saw them take a 12-point lead.

As the final seconds of the first quarter came to a close, the Lady Titans’ Anna Drakeford – who led Mercer County with 20 points – delivered two more to end the first quarter with a 19-9 score.

Riding the momentum of a last-second score, the Lady Titans slowly crawled back into the contest in the second quarter.

Eventually, the first half would end with the Lady Cards having a 25-21 lead.

While Ciara Byars, who led the team with 22 points, continued to shine offensively – the Lady Titans kept the game close.

After GRC scored to open the third quarter, a sense of deja vu came about, and the Lady Titans were able to tie the score at 36-36 as the fourth quarter began.

However, a united front of the Lady Cards stood strong.

“We came together as a group, and we knew that we didn’t want to go out like this,” said Ciara Byars. “We had to toughen up, sit down, and defend, and just…do what we needed to do to pull out the win.”

To start, Anaya Chestnut – playing in her first game at Rupp Arena – collected on one of her three three-point baskets to give GRC a 39-36 advantage.

“Since this is my first time at Rupp, I was a little anxious coming out [of the locker room],” Chestnut said. “When we started warming up, I just felt confident and relaxed…I just came out ready to play.”

Defensively, the Lady Cards limited Mercer County to only seven fourth-quarter points as they outscored their opponent 15-9.

“GRC is an experienced and tough program, and I have all the respect in the world for them…all credit goes to them,” said Mercer County Head Coach Hayley Spivey. “We just knew that our biggest mismatch was going to be inside against the Byars girls.”

Several other players, including Makili Tabor, were crucial to GRC’s efforts.

Coming off the bench, Tabor saw 20 minutes of playing time and delivered a pair of rebounds, three assists, and one blocked shot.

“She was just playing well,” Graham said. “We tell our players [that] you’ve got to be ready to go. You could go from not playing at all to playing ten minutes or twenty.”

While star senior Brianna Byars celebrated scoring 2,000 plus points in high school earlier this season, Wednesday’s 14-point performance added to her tally in a Lady Cardinals’ uniform.

“It’s just a great feeling. I didn’t even know it was going to happen”, she said. “[It’s] just a great thing to be a part of.”

The Lady Cards will play the North Laurel Lady Jaguars (30-6) in the Sweet 16 quarterfinals on Friday, March 10, at 1:30 p.m.

North Laurel defeated Frederick Douglass by a 59-57 score on Wednesday night to advance in the tournament.