END OF THE ROAD/Johnson, McCracken County eliminate Bowling Green girls, 47-41, from KHSAA Sweet 16


LEXINGTON — They got off to a slow start, but seemed to come to life in the third quarter.

But the Bowling Green High School girls’ basketball team couldn’t quite negotiate another comeback.

Senior point guard Claire Johnson scored 16 points and added five rebounds, five assists and three steals to lead McCracken County High School past the Lady Purples, 47-41, in the KHSAA Sweet 16 quarterfinals on Friday afternoon at Rupp Arena.

Bowling Green led only briefly, in the first quarter, and had to play catch-up the rest of the way against the Lady Mustangs, who excel at spreading the floor in their half-court sets. The Lady Purples trailed by only four points, 29-25, after three quarters, but McCracken kept them at arm’s length in the final quarter to advance to Saturday’s semifinals.

McCracken County improved to 31-5 overall. The Lady Mustangs will face either Franklin County, or Louisville’s Butler High School, in the KHSAA Sweet 16 semifinals on Saturday.

Bowling Green, which has won the KHSAA 4th Region championship every year since 2020, finished its season with a 24-11 record. BGHS coach Calvin Head was accompanied by three of his seniors — Ryleigh Campbell, Chloe Potter and JaSiyah Franklin — at the postgame press conference, pointing out that they were middle school basketball players when he was hired for the 2017-18 season.

“We became Lady Purples together,” Head said.

Head was concerned about McCracken County point guard Claire Johnson beforehand, and the Lady Mustangs’ leader made it happen at both ends of the floor. McCracken coach Scott Sivills used just six players in the game, with four of them — Johnson, Mikee Buchanan, Ava Hughes and Jayden Skaggs — playing the entire 32 minutes.

“We knew Bowling Green was going to give us their best shot,” Sivills said. “Claire was very steady, the entire game. Our defense has kind of been our calling card in this tournament. Going back to the final four on Saturday, it’s an incredible feat for us.”

McCracken reached the championship game last year, only to fall to Louisville’s Sacred Heart Academy, 68-53.

Katy Smiley, the Lady Purples’ scoring leader, was again affected by first-half foul trouble, as she was in Wednesday’s 46-44 victory over Owsley County in first-round play. Senior BGHS forward NaTajia Alexander led the Lady Purples with 13 points, while junior point guard NaTaya Wardlow finished with nine.

Bowling Green struggled at the free-throw line, hitting just 8 of 15 foul shots. McCracken, on the other hand, hit 16 of 20 free throws, while finishing with a 21-16 rebounding advantage. Lady Mustangs forward Mikee Buchanan finished the game with 15 points and a game-high eight rebounds.

“Hat’s off to McCracken. They’re a very good basketball team, well coached,” BGHS coach Calvin Head said. “I’m extremely proud of my kids. We’ve got a bunch of fighters, to the very end. I thought we had some chances … We’re proud of the season we had.”

Bowling Green was no longer the KHSAA 4th Region favorite, after the departure of mainstays Meadow Tisdale and Saniyah Shelton to the college ranks last year. But the Lady Purples stunned eighth-ranked Franklin-Simpson, zapping the Lady Cats, 52-39, in the 4th Region semifinals to gain the inside track to the Sweet 16.

“Our team was left for dead, we really were,” Head said. “They were digging the graves, shovels in hand. It was never about proving people wrong, though. It was about proving themselves right.

“To see the resilience, the fight in them was really gratifying … Forget basketball, these girls are prepared to take on the world.”

Senior forward Chloe Potter, who was named to the all-tournament team, said the Lady Purples were willing to fight through injuries, tough defeats and anything else in their path on the way to Rupp Arena. Bowling Green lost two KHSAA 14th District games this season, on the road against Greenwood and at home against Warren Central.

It was the Lady Purples’ first loss to Warren Central since 2007.

“I don’t care how much pain I’m in,” Potter said. “I’d rather put my body on the line, to win a basketball game.”

McCracken County used a matchup zone in the early going against Smiley, usually keeping two bodies on her near the basket. Smiley only took three shots in the game, hitting one, while going 4-for-6 from the line to finish with six points.

Calvin Head pointed to the beginning of the fourth quarter, when McCracken extended its four-point lead to eight points in the blink of an eye, as the turning point of the game.

“We had a couple key turnovers there,” Head said. “Their lead ballooned really quickly … They’re a very disciplined team.”