Julie McCutcheon made a promise to her team when she took over as Jackson County’s head girls’ basketball coach two games into the season.
“I told them after the very first game that I coached them that we would make it to state,” said McCutcheon, who returned to coach the Panthers — after two seasons off — following the resignation of former coach Aaron Schuck early in the year.
Now, that promise has come to fruition.
The Panthers (7-19) defeated Monroe Area 50-40 Tuesday (Feb. 4) at Franklin County in the first round of the Region 8-AAA tournament to clinch a spot in the Class AAA state tournament.
Jackson County continues play in the region tournament Thursday (Feb. 6) at 7 p.m. against Jefferson in the semifinals at Emmanuel College.
The Panthers have returned to the state tournament for the first time since 2016-17 — when McCutcheon last coached the team — after not winning a region game last year.
“They’ve worked very hard to get where they got today,” McCutcheon said. “These ladies have learned life lessons this year … We’ve been up-and-down and finally got through some humps where they believed that they could do this.
“Because they have been through a lot, and they absolutely deserved what they got today.”
Naomi Sims and Mikenna Duffy scored nine points each to lead a balanced scoring effort for Jackson County in its win over Monroe Area. Five Panthers finished with seven or more points.
The Panthers dominated the final three and a half minutes of the contest, outscoring the Purple Hurricanes (10-15) 13-3 to wrap up the win and the state berth.
“I think some of the experiences they’ve gotten this year have taught them how to manage a game, not shoot ourselves out of a game,” McCutcheon said, noting some tough non-region games that helped the team prepare for the moment.
After splitting the season series at a game each, Jackson County and Monroe Area played a back-and-forth game on Tuesday.
Eight different Jackson County players got into the scorebook in the first half as the Panthers led 24-20 at the break.
Monroe Area took a brief 33-31 lead in the final minute of the third quarter when Jamliah Jones scored on a put back, but Kennedy Harris buried a 3-pointer at the 20-second mark to put the Panthers back out in front entering the fourth quarter.
The Purple Hurricanes tied the game 37-37 with a free throw from Jones with 3:38 left, but Jackson County’s defense clamped down, surrendering just one basket the rest of the way.
“You don’t always know what your offensive game is going to be, but you can always know what your defensive game is going to be,” McCutcheon said. “And that’s what we sell to them. If you go out and do that, we’ll make the offense work.”
The Panthers closed out the game by going 8-of-12 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, including five consecutive makes in the final minute.
This is the third-straight season a McCutcheon-coached Panther team has reached the state tournament. McCutcheon guided the program to back-to-back appearances in 2015-16 and 2016-17 before stepping down after the 2016-17 campaign. Now, the Panthers are going back to state in her return.
McCutcheon pointed to an identity the team has formed around using its quickness on defense to press opponents.
“When we started putting the presses in, this team really bought into that and this has really kind of been our signature this year,” she said. “I would say our defense has gotten us to where we are, really.
"They didn’t have to choose to buy into this (coaching) staff, but they did, and I think that's what made a difference. It could have gone a whole different way."
McCutcheon said she “just knew this team was special.”
“You could just kind of tell they’ve got a lot athleticism and quickness, that I really felt like we have some potential to (go to state), and it feels good to be able to bring them to state — to do this — after what they’ve been through this year,” she said.