DCA comeback comes up just short in Girls Sweet 16 debut

Published 3:44 pm Friday, March 15, 2024

David’s stone was just a couple sizes too small.

The rock found its mark, but Danville Christian’s best shot failed to fell the giant as the Lady Warriors narrowly missed a monumental upset in their debut at the Girls Sweet 16.

Cooper survived the blow and escaped with a 65-63 victory in a first-round game Thursday night at Rupp Arena, but DCA will be remembered for a plucky performance that nearly toppled one of the very best teams in the state.

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With their star player in serious foul trouble and a double-digit deficit staring them in the face, they fought back in the fourth quarter to give themselves an opportunity to win the biggest game in their program’s history.

“I was really worried that they were just going to crumble and fold against such a veteran, unbelievable team, and instead they do what I’ve asked them to do all year. They glorify God with their effort and their attitude, and they were just amazing,” DCA coach Billy Inmon said. “I could not be any more proud of these kids if we’d won the game.”

Grace Mbugua scored 34 points to keep DCA (29-3) in a game that started to get away from the Lady Warriors when she picked up her third foul midway through the second quarter.

Mbugua played the entire second half with four fouls, leading the charge that brought DCA almost all the way back from a 13-point deficit.

“(I was) just asking God for boldness not to play scared … even though I had four fouls,” Mbugua said. “Not thinking about if I’m going to get a foul called on me, just going out there and giving it my all (and) glorifying God through everything that I do. That’s all I can do.”

Cooper (30-4), ranked No. 2 in the final statewide media poll and making its third straight state tournament appearance, figured to have the edge over a DCA team with no comparable experience.

The Lady Warriors won their first regional championship only five days earlier, sending them to the Sweet 16 for the first time in only their fifth season of KHSAA postseason eligibility.

And they seemed to be on their way to a lopsided loss when Cooper used a 14-3 run to take its largest lead at 58-45 in the closing seconds of the third quarter.

Yet DCA had a chance to take the lead inside the final 90 seconds after outscoring the Lady Jaguars 12-2 over the first 4:35 of the fourth quarter.

Mbugua had seven points, three rebounds, two steals, two assists and one blocked shot during that run, and after Cooper kept the ball for almost two minutes with a 60-59 lead, she blocked a shot to give DCA its shot at the lead.

However, Cooper got a defensive stop, and although Emily Musasi’s layup with 28 seconds left brought DCA within 62-61, the Lady Jaguars made five of six free throws in the final :41.

DCA also paid a price for a high turnover total. While this was the second-highest point total allowed by Cooper, which hadn’t given up more than 34 points in any of its postseason games, the Lady Jaguars forced 22 turnovers.

“I thought at times, especially early on, we let their guards see the post a little bit too much,” Cooper coach Justin Holthaus said. “In that second half, especially with (Mbugua) trying to bring it the length of the court, we tried to show on her, make her give the ball up a little bit. It was a full team effort, really, for 32 minutes.”

Mbugua hit two 3-pointers in the first three minutes and scored 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting from the field in the first quarter as DCA jumped out to a 20-10 lead.

She went to the bench with three fouls at the 4:27 mark of the second quarter, then returned to the floor 65 seconds later. She played only 19 seconds before she was whistled for her fourth foul.

“I looked at assistant coach Jon Meyer and I said, ‘Well, Johnny, if we want to have a second half, we’ve got to put her back in now,’” Inmon said. “She does everything: She helps break the press, shoots 3s, posts up, steals the ball … and I wanted to have a second half to play for, and so I rolled the dice.”

Mbugua stayed on the floor throughout the second half – there were 26 fouls called in the first half but only 13 in the second – and finished 12 for 18 from the field, 3 for 4 from 3-point range and 7 for 11 at the free throw line. She had 14 rebounds, four blocked shots, three assists and two steals in 28 minutes.

The 6-4 junior had the highest individual point total in a Girls Sweet 16 game since Jordan Brock of Harlan scored 38 points in a 2017 first-round loss to George Rogers Clark.

“You tip your cap to that kid because she shoulders the load and she knows what she’s going to get,” Holthaus said. “We believe that we’re a premier defense, and she finished with 34 and she earned every bucket that she got.”

Paisley Metz scored eight points for the Lady Warriors, and Braxtyn Heck and Grace Meyer had six each. Heck also had six rebounds and four assists, and Musasi had five rebounds.

Logan Palmer scored 15 points to lead four players in double figures for Cooper.

Scoring summary

Girls Sweet 16 at Lexington First Round

DANVILLE CHRISTIAN (29-3) – Paisley Metz 3-5 0-0 8, Grace Meyer 2-5 0-0 6, Grace Mbugua 12-18 7-11 34, Amauri Blackford 1-2 1-2 3, Braxtyn Heck 0-5 6-11 6, Emily Musasi 2-2 2-2 6, Nadya Abrams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-37 16-26 63.

COOPER (30-4) – Haylee Noel 4-7 3-4 11, Maleah Alexander 0-5 2-4 2, Bella Deere 3-8 2-4 10, Liz Freihofer 5-8 3-4 14, Logan Palmer 4-14 6-7 15, Addyson Brissey 2-5 2-2 6, Alivia Scott 1-1 0-0 2, Zene Thompson 2-6 1-1 5, Giannna Cooper 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-54 19-26 65.

Danville Christian 20 13 14 16 – 63

Cooper 12 24 22 7 – 65

3-Point Goals–DCA 7-14 (Metz 2-4, Meyer 2-5, Mbugua 3-4, Heck 0-1), Cooper 4-10 (Alexander 0-1, Deere 2-4, Freihofer 1-1, Palmer 1-1, Brissey 0-3). Fouled Out–Blackford, Thompson. Rebounds–DCA 32 (Mbugua 14), Cooper 23 (Deere, Freihofer 5). Assists–DCA 12 (Heck 4), Cooper 13 (Noel 4). Turnovers–DCA 22, Cooper 9. Total Fouls–DCA 20, Cooper 19. A–4,557.