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20210328 16th Region girls 03.jpg

Russell's Shaelyn Steele (10) drives to the basket against Boyd County defender Laney Whitmore (2) during the Kentucky 16th Region girls basketball tournament championship game on Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Ellis T. Johnson Arena in Morehead, Kentucky.

The last time Russell girls basketball head coach Mandy Layne played in the 8 p.m. Thursday time slot at the Kentucky Sweet 16, she ended up a state champion.

That came as a player in 2000 at West Carter.

Layne is hoping that trend continues in her latest venture to the state tournament, which begins on Thursday as her Russell team takes on Dixie Heights in the final Sweet 16 first-round contest at Rupp Arena.

Layne knows her team is not favored as they take on Dixie Heights, which brings a 21-game winning streak into the Sweet 16 matchup.

The Devils’ head coach also knows her team wasn’t in the 16th Region championship when her team was the aggressor from start to finish in a 72-61 win over Boyd County, which was considered one of the potential state tournament favorites.

Layne knows the talent on her team is capable of topping anyone at any time, and she looks forward to putting that on display on Thursday.

“Not only embracing the moment, but taking advantage of the moment,” Layne said. “We feel like we have an opportunity to win the first couple of games.”

One key for Russell in the postseason has been starting strong.

In the 16th Region semifinals and championship, Russell produced big leads almost immediately to put the opposition into scramble mode.

Those leads came on the strength of a stout defense that swarms to the basketball and doesn’t allow space.

Boyd County, known for its shooting, hit just 23 percent of its shots in the first half as Russell jumped ahead by double digits at the break.

“We do a really nice job of switching defenses,” Layne said. “I think we have one of the best zone defenses in the state of Kentucky.”

Russell’s surge to end the season has been the product of several factors — most notably the emergence of freshman Shaelyn Steele, who has been offered by Marshall and is also getting several high-major looks.

Steele’s performance, capped by a 23-point effort in the win over Boyd County that led the Devils back to Lexington, earned 16th Region Most Valuable Player honors.

The 5-foot-5 freshman averages 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds on the year, but her defensive quickness and ability to set the tempo for Russell is what fuels the team.

“I’m really excited for people to see her,” Layne said.

Steele will have a tough matchup with Dixie Heights senior guard Sydney Lockard (12.2 points per game) on Thursday and the switching man-to-man defense of the Colonels.

Layne said Russell has watched plenty of film of Dixie Heights over the last week and made some adjustments to its scheme based on what was seen.

“It has definitely helped us having the additional five to six days,” Layne said.

In addition to the guard play, one battle to watch comes down low, where Russell’s Aubrey Hill (14.7 points, 7.0 rebounds) squares off with Dixie Heights leader Madelyn Lawson (14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds).

Hill’s ability to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble is paramount to the Devils’ success on Thursday.

Russell has also gotten big contributions of late from Kaeli Ross and Jenna Adkins, propelling the team offensively. Ross’ ability to knock down tough shots and Adkins’ ability to handle has taken some of the pressure off of Steele.

If experience plays into Thursday’s game, Russell may have a bit of an advantage going in.

Russell and Dixie Heights met in a holiday tournament during the 2019-20 with the Devils earning a 76-55 win at Pikeville.

In that game, Russell had three 20-point scorers: Hill with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Steele and Ross with 20 each.

The winner of Thursday’s game takes on the Apollo-Henderson County winner at 8 p.m. on Friday night.

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