The Lady Knights were on a crusade.
Marion County’s mission was clear: Win a state title, and leave no doubt about who was the rightful champion.
“Before the season, we set a team goal to go 39-0 and win a championship,” senior guard Makayla Epps said. “That’s exactly what we just did.”
Notre Dame became the final victim Saturday, as Marion County defeated the Pandas 52-36 to become the third undefeated champion in state history in the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Laurel County (1979) and Marshall County (1984) also completed perfect seasons.
Epps roamed the arena before Saturday’s final in a maroon shirt that read “Keep Calm and Take Over Diddle.”
And that was the key. It wasn’t just about beating every opponent. The Lady Knights wanted to thoroughly handle each one during their run through Kentucky’s best.
“They come and bring it every single night,” Marion County coach Trent Milby said. “There’s words, but I don’t even know. I love ‘em to death.”
Notre Dame (29-6) was playing in its first state title game after upsetting Manual 64-60 in Saturday’s second semifinal.
Marion County could’ve exacted some revenge in a championship clash with Manual. The Lady Crimsons ousted the Lady Knights in the semifinals in 2011 and in the championship game last season.
Instead, Marion County had to pull away late in the second half with Notre Dame trailing by 10 with 1:30 to play in the third quarter.
Epps finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists to earn Most Valuable Player honors, and senior forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers added 10 points in front of a Marion County-heavy crowd of 6,259 – the second-largest in girls’ state-final history and the largest at Diddle Arena.
Marion County’s title is its first in eight appearances. It won its four state tournament games by an average of nearly 25 points and won one game this season by fewer than 15 points.
“They’re a great team, but we’re proud of our girls,” Notre Dame coach Nicole Levandusky said. “They came out and fought start to finish. Nobody had us picked in this game, but they didn’t care about that. They were determined to get here.”
Earlier in the day, Marion County – ranked fifth in the nation by USA Today – beat Anderson County, which is rated second in the state by The Courier-Journal, by 23 points in the semifinals.
It handed Montgomery County a running clock Friday in a 71-32 quarterfinal win and blasted Bowling Green 64-43 in Wednesday’s opening round.
It’s likely all five of the Lady Knights’ starters will eventually sign to play Division I.
The all-star lineup starts with the senior stars Epps and Goodin-Rogers, the close teammates who originally inked with the University of Louisville before flipping their pledges together to Kentucky.
Epps averaged 22.8 points per game in four tournament games and is a favorite for Kentucky’s Miss Basketball award.
“Without a doubt the best high school guard I’ve seen since I’ve been coaching,” Anderson County coach Tony Kays said. “She’s got it all – strength, speed, athleticism.”
Anderson County junior guard Makenzie Cann played AAU ball with the Marion County duo for Kentucky Premier and said what makes them most dangerous is their synergy. Goodin-Rogers is also a Miss Basketball finalist.
“They’re really good, and they’re really good together,” Cann said. “It’s hard to stop both of them.”
On the few occasions Epps and Goodin-Rogers have both struggled, the Lady Knights’ other stars have shined.
Senior forward Logan Powell is headed to Norfolk State and scored 19 points Friday, when Marion County had early trouble with Montgomery County.
Senior guard Patrice Tonge should sign with a program this spring, Milby said, and junior forward Alexus Calhoun is one of the top juniors in the state.
Even 5-foot-3-inch eighth-grader Haeli Howard got in the mix in Saturday’s final, with six points and three steals.
That depth is what makes the Lady Knights so frightening, Montgomery County coach Janie Robinson said.
“We’ve played just about everybody, and no, nobody can beat them,” Robinson said. “There’s a lot of scenarios, but as far as straight-up, athletic basketball skills, they’re the best I’ve seen.”
Robinson said she’d like to see this year’s Marion County team face the Iroquois squad that won the state title in 2009 and was runner-up in 2007 with current UK star A’dia Mathies.
Other elite teams that have been mentioned in comparison with Marion County are Sacred Heart, which won three straight titles from 2002-04 with Western Kentucky standout Crystal Kelly, and the Lexington Catholic teams that won consecutive crowns in 2005 and 2006.
“We’ve been beat by all those people,” Robinson said. “When you get at this level, it’s really about strength and speed and size. They have it all. When you have a point guard Epps’ size that moves that quick, it’s pretty amazing.”
Sacred Heart is one of two teams, along with Laurel County, to win three straight state titles. Kelly won Miss Basketball in her final season before rewriting the record book at WKU.
Kelly, who’s now an assistant coach at Bellarmine University, was in attendance at this state tournament and said it takes special circumstances for a team to reach such an elite level – no matter the amount of talent.
“We were always together off the court, so we had that bond and formed a trust,” Kelly said. “We would’ve sacrificed anything for one other. I think that’s important. We were all trying to do something special.”
The Lady Knights accomplished something special Saturday night.
They finished the mission without a blemish, and they left no doubt.
“39-0, it speaks for itself,” Milby said. “Margin of victory over 30 for the season. Nobody will ever break 39 wins. It’s got to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, single seasons. We’re not talking about a run of two or three.
“We’re talking about one year, and we’ll put our team up there with anybody.”
NDA 11 7 12 6 - 36
MCHS 16 15 12 9 - 52
NDA - Smith 12, Voskuhl 11, Clemons 6, Ogle 3, Henderson 2, Stallman 2.
MCHS - Epps 15, Goodin-Rogers 10, Tonge 9, Powell 7, Howard 6, Calhoun 5.