It’s always hard to decide how to begin a story involving a team which breaks ground in the most spectacular way and to that end writing one about Bethlehem’s first trip to the state tournament in girls basketball had several storylines to tackle.
1. There was the fact that the Banshees had NEVER made a state appearance. Other than making a 1976 Region Final, the sport had not gotten that far and this was a Brave New World for them.
2. The State Tournament was being held at Rupp Arena in Lexington for the first time, so after being shipped out to NKU and WKU for so many years, this too had a feeling of something special for the Girls, who now got to experience what the Boys State Tournament was all about.
3. The town of Bardstown, Kentucky where the closest a team had won the 5th Region on the Girls side was Nelson County (the Lady Cardinals had made 5 appearances from 1984 to 2017) now were in full force and brought most of the populace to Lexington for the opening day event on Wednesday. Since the Banshees pulled off the impossible winning the Region title, the town had treated the Girls Basketball team like Queens for a Day and practically gave them the key to the city leading up to the Game One.
4. It was a battle between two private schools as the Mean Green Catholic student section took one side of Rupp and the Banshee fanatics which were covered in face paint and blue hand prints took over the other side. It was Great Theatre.
That being said, the Bethlehem Banshees first trip to state didn’t last quite as long as it could have as they dropped a heartbreaking Game One to Owensboro Catholic, 53-47. The Banshees did a lot of things right in their first game in the state’s biggest spotlight, like outrebounding a much taller Lady Aces team. They showed some nerves in the early going, but once they settled down played with more confidence and actually took a halftime lead.
In the end, it wasn’t nerves that got the best of the Banshees at Rupp Arena, but several missed opportunities and there were quite a few.
In the beginning, it looked like both teams struggled to adapt to the bigger stage, different arena and darker backdrop (Rupp Arena is famous for the darker background which makes depth perception difficult for shooters) as it took the Lady Aces four shots and nearly a minute and a half to break the scoreless tie on a three by Caroline Reid. It took eight shots and nearly half the first quarter before the Banshees scored on Mikiah Livers-Bryant put back off a miss by Baeli Young. Ella Thompson scored a minute later concluding the Bethlehem scoring as Owensboro Catholic ened the quarter on a 6-0 run.
Then it happened. The Banshees took off, starting with a bank three by Carly Beam off an assist by Livers-Bryant, two free throws by Thompson, a three by Young, a three by Thompson and a layup by Hodges eventually tied the score at 17-all as the crowd went wild. In incredible lightning fast fashion, the Banshees shook off the nerves and looked like the team which had won the 5th Region Championship just seven days ago. Then when two free throws by Mackenzie Keelin made it 19-17, the Banshees struck again when Livers-Bryant blocked a shot and Thompson got the rebound swinging out to Carly Jones, who fired a missed three, but eventually got he ball back after a turnover and hit a three with 00:17 before halftime.
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In the third quarter, the lead changed hands seven times as the quarter ended in a 35-35 tie. The smaller Banshees showed no fear of the taller Lady Aces as Thompson and Livers-Bryant pulled down 19-rebounds total and were causing the inside threats of the Owensboro Catholic post players problems as the two blocked several shots and altered several other shots.
Still, Bethlehem got off to a good start in the fourth quarter with a layup by Thompson to make it 37-35, but a tip in by Hannah McKay and a foul on Livers-Bryant allowed the Lady Aces to retake the lead at 38-37 with 6:04 left. After a three by Keelin made it 41-37, Hodges responded with a three of her own to close at 41-40. Then Owensboro Catholic went on a 5-0 run before Sparks chipped in two free throws to close 46-42. After a Hannah McKay’s layup, Livers-Bryant responded with one of her own. With 1:41 left, Isabella Henning hit two free throws to make it 51-44 until Hodges hit a three to cut it to 51-47. With a chance to cut into the four point deficit, the Banshees would miss their next three shots and McKay closed out the scoring with two more free throws to make the final 53-47.
Afterwards, Owensboro Catholic Micheal Robertson gave praise to the Banshees, who played valiantly outrebounded his team and their effort as they gave the Lady Aces a great game in the end.
After playing Elizabethtown, the Banshees were used to playing taller competition and inside players like Livers-Brynat and Thompson tried using head fakes and ball fakes to throw off the towering Catholic post players.
Bethlehem coach Jason Clark talked afterwards about the problem the taller team presented and how he was proud that his girls responded in the end. He also jokely responded to the invisible cover on the basket early when the Banshees were stone cold and finally about former players and alumni who came by the week leading up to their trip to Rupp Arena and how they were beaming with pride.
Looking at the stats, the Banshees were 15-57 from the field actually taking 22 more shots than the Lady Aces, who were 16-35. The Banshees were 8-22 from three point land (Catholic was 6-17) and they won the free throw shooting contest going 9-12 (Catholic was 15-23) and outrebounded them 35 to 31. Hodges and Thompson had game highs 14-points each with Livers-Bryant next with 6-points.
Maddie Sparks said afterwards, “We had our chances, but it’s hard to win when you shoot in the teens.”
Both Sparks and Carly Beam played their last game at Rupp, but it certainly is one of the best ways to end your high school athletic career as they left it all out on the court where Championships were won. “When I got a text from my Dad telling me to soak it all in no matter what happens, so when we first went out here to warm up I was thinking “We’ve got to get ready!”, but then I just thought you have to take a minute to really appreciate this moment.” Said Beam.
Probably the best way to end this story is by a statement Clark made during the press conference afterwards. Livers-Bryant, Thompson and Hodges all acknowledged that next season begins now as they all planned to return to work preparing themselves for the 2019-2020 basketball season. In a Region where Elizabethtown and Bardstown will not treat their 2019 Championship with praise, but by painting a target on their backs, the Banshees will quickly find out whether this was a flash in the pan year or the beginning of something great.
Clark used the line “All In!” meaning everybody needs to get ready for a Championship season and he said that his team responded well as they did something that NO other Banshee team had ever done and took everyone with them to Rupp for a marvelous three and a half months.
As a parting shot, I ran into Ali Sparks and her family after the game in the parking lot as the team was waiting to board the team bus. The mother of Maddie Sparks had been a great friend to me and the Sporting Times when both Maddie and Abigail Proctor (Paula, Abigail’s mom was my Girls Soccer informant) and company won their first Region Title in Girls soccer in 2015. As a result, the team’s success made it much easier to follow them and the four year ride was like a dream as everyone associated with the program did everything in their power to make my job easier.
For some reason, I immediately flashed back to two weeks ago when Maddie turned her ankle when she landed on the foot of a Central Hardin player and didn’t return to action. I questioned whether she would be ready to play at full strength six days later in the Region Semi-finals and how they would miss her presence on the court, but there she was on the court against Caverna and the next day in the surprise against Elizabethtown the following day. I remembered that while both she and Carly Beam were using blanket coverage on the Owensboro Catholic guards holding them to just 15-points. It seemed like I was guilty like everyone else of underestimating Sparks and this team until they went out and proved you wrong.
In the end, it took a team like Owensboro Catholic to finally end the dream that everyone thought was impossible at some point.
Now both Sparks and Beam are leaving to begin their adult life, but the memory will always remain as the Bethlehem Banshees left Rupp Arena just like the way it was when they got there on a warm March afternoon in Lexington, KY in the place where basketball is King and Dreams can become reality.