Though having won six 10th Region championships in the last seven years, not since 2018 had the George Rogers Clark Lady Cardinals played in the Final Four prior to Friday afternoon’s matchup with the North Laurel Lady Jaguars.
By the end of regulation, that could no longer be said.
As they did against Mercer County in their Sweet 16 matchup, the Lady Cards built an early first-half lead and clamped down on North Laurel defensively in the second half en route to a convincing 63-48 victory.
They will play two-time defending state champion Sacred Heart tomorrow at 11 a.m., with the winner to play in the 2023 KHSAA Girls State Championship Game at 7:00 p.m.
“We knew they were going to be tough. They played a tough schedule…so we knew it was [going to] be a battle”, said Head Coach Robbie Graham. “We [felt] really good about our matchups with [Ciara Byars] and [Brianna Byars] down on the post one-on-one…I think, defensively, we did a really good job of guarding.”
Proving that they would, indeed, be tough to beat, the Lady Jaguars came out quickly and scored the first four points of the game, led by 24 from sophomore guard Brooke Nicholson.
However, led in part by 14 first-half points from Kennedy Stamper that included two three-point baskets, GRC started to gain momentum en route to an 8-point lead at the end of the first quarter.
“Once I hit that first [three-point shot], I knew I was going to be on”, said Stamper. “I just kept going.”
The second quarter would also fare well in the Lady Cards’ favor, as they held a 36-22 lead going into the locker room for halftime.
Defensively, GRC held the Lady Jaguars without a field goal for almost four minutes before the first half ended.
“We want to challenge every shot, get a hand up, and make them shoot over the top”, Coach Graham said. “For the most part, we were right there.”
Yet North Laurel – who overcame a five-point halftime deficit to Frederick Douglass to advance to the Elite Eight – would not go quietly.
They scored on five of their first six field goal attempts of the second half.
Not to be deterred, the Lady Cards answered back, led by Ciara Byars’ game-high 25 points.
“In the second half, we were just being patient and taking the mismatches”, she said. “It just so happened to be me today, so that’s where we attacked in the second half.”
The Lady Jaguars made one last threat, bringing their deficit to single digits at 50-41 with 6:34 remaining.
Only seconds later, the Lady Cards’ Trinity Gay delivered a two-point basket and quickly forced a turnover to help GRC return to a 55-41 advantage.
“I just had to come mentally prepared”, she said. “I knew they were going to [play] zone [against] us, so I just had to make some shots and stay confident throughout the game.”
While expressing pride in his team’s effort, North Laurel Lady Jaguars Head Coach Eddie Mahan Jr. noted where GRC created challenges.
“Their defense amped up a whole lot in the second quarter, and that was a big part of the game”, he said. “They’re here pretty much every year for a reason. They’re well coached [and] they’re well organized.”
With no school on Friday, George Rogers Clark High School provided free travel services to those wishing to attend the game.
As a result, over a dozen buses full of students, teachers, and community members were dropped off at Rupp Arena – creating an atmosphere similar to GRC Arena.
“These girls work extremely hard, and to see our community come out and support these girls…that means a lot”, Coach Graham. “[Staff] did an excellent job of organizing [in] a very short time. Our student section [was] outstanding. Hats off to them!”