BETHLEHEM WHO? BETHLEHEM BANSHEES! THAT’S WHO!
Bethlehem Who? Bethlehem Banshees! That’s Who!
If you were surprised by the result of the 2019 5th Region Girls Basketball Championship result, then you weren’t alone. In a battle of the small schools, Bethlehem Shocked the World! Or at least the 5th Region version of it. The underdog Banshees came out and not only built a big early lead over the powerful Elizabethtown Lady Panthers, but eventually added on to it and came out winners, 63-47. It was a game in which many felt like it was the challenger (the Banshees) verses the Champions (the Lady Panthers) and Elizabethtown seemed to have the better resume with the top ten schedule against the state’s best and the long line of top flight athletes to boot.
Meanwhile, Bethlehem had not been to a Region Championship since 1979 and had struggled in a District usually dominated by Nelson County and Bardstown. A lot of that changed this season, though as second year head coach Jason Clark had began building the foundation for a winning team. After winning a 19th District Championship in a thrilling overtime game against Bardstown, many saw the Banshees as a strong contender to make the Region Final out of their bracket.
Still, very few were willing to give Bethlehem a chance after watching Elizabethtown muscle-flex against Marion County in the Region Semi-finals. The Lady Panthers were their usual effective, overwhelming selfs shutting down, what I though was the second best team in Elizabethtown’s bracket, while the Lady Banshees were on cruise control against a Caverna team which showed plenty of fight, but couldn’t stay with coach Jason Clark’s team. Elizabethtown would prove to be the biggest obstacle for the Banshees and after winning four-of-the-last –five Region Finals, their experience, poise and tradition were the reason why the Lady Panthers were a safe pick.
So with that being said the final score read Bethlehem 63 Elizabethtown 47 and at one point in the second half, the Lady Banshees had a 20-point lead. How it happened is almost as interesting as why and here are some observations into that.
There were Five keys to victory for the Lady Banshees:
1. BE THE ATTACKER! NOT THE ATTACKED! – If there is one thing Elizabethtown likes to do whether they are under Tim Mudd or Donnie Swiney is play defense, which is why the Lady Panthers are loaded with big post players. If you can’t score then you can’t win. That logic worked against Marion County so why shouldn’t it work against the Banshees. It didn’t. Bethlehem was able to work against the tall trees with the inside play of sophomore forward Ella Thompson and the outside shooting of sophomore guard Amelia Hodges, who lit it up from outside and was able to consistently weave through the complex Elizabethtown defense which so confounded Marion County the night before. Hodges finished with a game high 21-points and four made threes and helped the team build and maintain a lead that they NEVER lost.
2. Win the Rebounding War- This was a plus to stay with this team as the Lady Panthers have skyscraper height in Leikyn Walker, Sydney Clark, Xaveria Smalley and Whitney Hay. Clark needed a huge game from his two inside players and he got it. Junior Mikiah Livers-Bryant battled with the twin towers all night and pulled down 17-rebounds (many on the offensive side) and was a perfect compliment to Thompson, who also was a rebounding threat and had the freedom to challenge the multiple Lady Panther guards when they drove into NO-MAN’s Land. More importantly, they stayed out of serious foul trouble and were a factor in the biggest game of their young lives. Bryant had to play great for the Banshees to have a chance and she came through with flying colors.
3. Stop the BRAIN! – There’s an out adage that to first beat a team you must take away the top scorer and Whitney Hay is it. The Sophomore guard didn’t score 767-points against the best defenses in the state without being pretty darn talented and to that end one of the most important matchups belonged to senior guard Maddie Sparks, who’s job wasn’t to just shadow her, but literally Velcro herself to the All Area superstar when she got close to the paint, which is where Hay lives to score and to that end she did. Sparks, who is a pretty darn good soccer player in her own right wasn’t afraid of a challenge and the pressure (of playing in so many win-or-go home situations ) for most of the game when she was in one on one coverage, Sparks was practically cheek-to-cheek with the star guard during the game. Such inclusive tactics on both Hay and the Ellie Taylor forced the Lady Panther offense to stall. Hay ended up with 17-points (she was the only Elizabethtown player in double figures), but she had to take a lot of shots to get them.
4. DEFENSE! – Refer to No.3 please. Even though a lot of what Elizabethtown does goes through the talents of Whitney Hay and complimenting guard Taylor, the inside game has been a staple of the Lady Panther attack and to that end it really came down to forcing their forwards as far away from the basket as possible and making even the easy shot less comfortable. On several occasions, it appeared like both forwards had Walker or Clark backed out from underneath the basket and forced several harried shots. Between the three inside players,(Walker, Clark and Smalley) they combined for 15-points (Walker hit a three in the second quarter) and after combining for 31-points the previous night against Marion County (many were of the layup or put back nature).
5. Intangibles- A lot of what happens in a sporting event can fall under that category even luck can play a part. Like when the Banshees ended the third quarter on a 9-0 run in the final 00:49 of the third quarter when Hodges, senior Carly Beam and Baeli Young hit back-to-back-back threes with Young’s circus shot a buzzer beater to push the lead back up to 49-30. Like when Livers-Bryant stood her ground and drew a charge against Hay as the first quarter was coming to a close when Elizabethtown had a chance to cut the lead from 15-8 to a possible five point deficit, then Hodges hit a three to extend it to 18-8 instead. Several times, Banshee dribbles drove inside and threw up shots that somehow rolled in. That’s when you knew that it’s your night.
After Taylor hit a three to open the scoring, Bethlehem went on a 9-0 run and then after Kiarah Dorman scored on a layup to cut the lead to 9-5, Bethlehem went on another run with Hodges scoring five points on a three and a layup, Young two free throws and Thompson a put back to push the lead back up to 18-5. The Banshees led 21-11 after one quarter and after the Lady Panthers cut into the lead with a couple of threes by Hay and Walker to make it 31-19 at halftime, Bethlehem pushed it back up to 49-30 after three with the three-point flurry to end the third quarter. After the bulge reached a 20-point difference, the Banshees sat on the lead and the two teams finally began subbing backups into the game for some exposure as the 63-47 score became final.
Afterwards, the Lady Panthers sat in shock during the trophy ceremony as they were denied a second straight Region Title and trip to the State Tournament. It would have been 5-out-of -6 seasons if they could have pulled it off, but the way they were defeated was just as a surprise to a team which is use to adjusting and controlling the tempo of the game. Whitney Hay did not shy away from the obvious and blamed herself for her bad performance vowing to learn from the experience as she will enter her senior season in five months. This Elizabethtown team will still be loaded coming into the new season and should be a Top Five squad with loads of experience.
Coming into the game, it wasn’t really a question of whether players like Hodges and Thompson could handle the pressure of a win-or-go home situation, but how the rest of the team would react. Both Sparks and Carly Beam have played in the pressure cooker of the highly competitive soccer world as did Livers-Bryant, who like Young is also a two sport athlete and head coach Jason Clark, who was a disciple of Kelly Wood at Nelson County drew up the perfect one-game scenario game plan. In some ways, this was reminiscent of the 2013 Baylor – Louisville NCAA Sweet Sixteen game, when the Lady Cards pulled the upset. Coach Jeff Walz said afterwards “I didn’t need two or three of us to play GREAT, I just needed everyone to play GOOD at the same time and we just hadn’t done that up until now.” Maybe Clark took a page out of his playbook as the Banshees all played well at the right time for their first Region Championship EVER in front of a stunned and energetic crowd.
So for the first time since Bethlehem high school started a Girls Basketball program, the team will be going as 5th Region Champions. The players themselves showed little anxiety afterwards from their history making achievement, but more or less thankful of the coaching staff, who helped prepare them for this moment. Seniors Beam and Sparks, who were use to making history in another varsity sport approched the moment like a kid on Christmas morning, while Hodges and Thompson, who had been there and done that with Nelson County in 2017 had a buisness attitude. Young and Livers-Bryant seemed a bit gitty over winning a Region Title in another sport and the Bethlehem faithful (students, athletes in other sports and alumni ) showed what happens when the Bardstown populace takes over a gym during playoffs.
As a parting shot, Coach Jason Clark made reference to the late great Steve Hart, who had coached the Banshees basketball team many years age and had passed away several years since and lived and breathed Bethlehem Girls Basketball. On the day the Banshees played the most important game of their history, it was on Coach Hart’s birthday and it was somewhat fitting that somewhere in the heavens if he was looking down on his old team and smiling and probably celebrating just as much as if he were present on the court.
When the Banshees take the court for the first time at Rupp Arena, I’m sure that coach Hart will be there with them in spirit and in memory as for the second time in nine days, they will be playing the most important game in team history against Owensboro Catholic and once again no one will believe.
Well, no one expect for the old ball coach.