Fight to the finish

FORTVILLE — Part of the winning team in two of the previous three contests vs. Greenfield-Central prior to Wednesday, Sydney Shelton didn’t have much room to complain.

But the Mt. Vernon Division I commit couldn’t help but think she could have done a little more to help her squad, after totaling 21 points in three games against the Cougars the last two seasons.

In Wednesday’s Class 4A Sectional 9 quarterfinal, Shelton vowed to lead the way. The junior guard scored a game-high 26 points in Mt. Vernon’s 45-43 victory against rival Greenfield-Central.

“I knew that I had to (step up) to be able to win,” said Shelton, who made 7-of-8 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter as the Cougars crept closer. “I’ve really wanted that game and this tournament more than anything. So, I just had to go out there and trust in my teammates … and do the best that I could.”

No. 11-ranked Mt. Vernon (21-2) advanced to Friday’s semifinal to face Richmond (18-6) at approximately 7:30 p.m. Anderson (6-17) and Connersville (13-11) will meet in the first semifinal at 6 p.m.

Shelton (21.9 points per game this season) knocked down three 3-pointers early in the first half of a game in which Mt. Vernon never trailed. The 5-foot-9 standout had 11 points in the first quarter to stake the home team to a 16-9 lead, and it maintained a 5-to-8-point margin most of the remainder — until Greenfield-Central senior Shelby Oldham got hot.

With the Cougars down 43-37 with less than 90 seconds to go in the fourth quarter, Oldham sank two 3-pointers that closed the gap to 44-43 with 17.2 seconds left.

Shelton found her way to the free throw line and made 1-of-2 for a 45-43 advantage at the 14.2 second mark, and Greenfield-Central, after a drive to the hoop, missed two three throws with 1.8 seconds to go that would have tied the game.

“Free throws,” Greenfield-Central coach Doug Laker said. “Free throws and the little things. We battled, we contested, we defended. It was a great effort on everbody’s part. I think we defended them better than anybody ever could, but we didn’t hit shots.”

The Cougars (17-7) went 1-of-5 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and 5-of-16 overall in the season-ender.

Despite the Greenfield-Central shooting struggle, Mt. Vernon never quite pulled away.

After Shelton’s early barrage, the Cougars’ increased defensive intensity kept the Marauders without a field goal during the first four minutes of the second quarter to pull within 17-14. But a 3-pointer from Ariana Sandefur opened things back up for Mt. Vernon, and it was in control 24-16 at the break.

The Cougars went 6-of-19 from the field in the first half and 17-of-42 for the game.

“We were banking on the fact that we would hold them to about 40 points,” Mt. Vernon coach Steve Doud said. “And we’re a 60-point scoring team, so both teams were battling on the defensive end. It’s a tribute to (Laker). He has a really nice team. He had them prepared. It was a battle.”

An Olivia Coleman 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter made it 32-27, and the Marauders were up 43-37 with less than 90 seconds remaining in the fourth. That set the stage for Oldham’s long-range flurry and, ultimately, the Marauders’ composure.

With Shelton setting the example at the charity stripe, Mt. Vernon sank 11-of-14 free throws in the fourth quarter and had only four second-half turnovers.

“I’m so proud of us and the girls for being able to focus in big moments,” added Shelton, who also came up with three rebounds in the fourth quarter. “When everything is going on, we were still able to execute what we’ve been practicing. We just were calm (in the fourth quarter). Every play matters at that point.”

Sadie Baugh had seven points for the Marauders, while Coleman finished with six points and nine rebounds. Shelton, a University of Kentucky recruit, grabbed six rebounds.

Maddie Wise (13 points, nine rebounds) and Oldham (10 points) paced the Cougars. Regan Lewis and Katie Helgason added six points each.

Class 3A state champs two seasons ago, the Marauders will continue pursuit of their first 4A sectional crown Friday against the Red Devils.

“Now, the biggest thing would be the letdown,” Doud noted, while standing outside his team’s locker room. “You see that all the time. All we can do is come in (today) and put a game plan together. But, that’s an experienced group in there. I’m putting my money on them. I know when push comes to shove, they’re going to do the best job they can to get the job done.”

Mt. Vernon defeated Richmond 73-40 on Jan. 6, although Richmond was without second-leading scorer MacKenzie Taylor (18.2 ppg) in that game. The senior guard has since returned.

Notes: Connersville beat Pendleton Heights 43-39 Tuesday in the opener of the seven-team sectional. Richmond defeated New Castle 71-54 in Wednesday’s second quarterfinal … Mt. Vernon’s most recent sectional title was in 2013; Greenfield-Central, in 2004; New Castle, 2007; Richmond, 2000; Anderson, 2014; Pendleton Heights, 2011; and Connersville, 2013. … The sectional championship is Saturday at 7:30 p.m.