Now, they're a game away despite a performance Friday that was much less than their best.
The Lady Tigers got little offensive production from their starting lineup and looked out of sync but still defeated Whitley County 61-41 in the regional semifinals at Corbin.
Clay's starters shot a combined 29 percent (7-for-24) from the floor, but the Lady Tigers got huge boosts off the bench from junior Gemma Gray, who hit all six of her shots and scored 21 points, and freshman Jordan Phillips, who added 12.
"Those two kids are as good as our starters, if not better," Clay County coach James Burchell said. "I feel like I've got seven starters, and that's a good luxury to have."
"Too many weapons," Whitley County coach Larry Anderson said. "They've got a great team - they hit you in so many places."
Burchell blamed the Lady Tigers' mediocre offensive performance on Whitley's defense.
"Whitley County's an excellent halfcourt defensive ball club," he said. "We knew that was going to happen. It takes awhile to get into a rhythm because they're big and strong, and they take up a lot of room in (the post)."
The first half was a defensive struggle that included more turnovers (21) than field goals (16).
Senior forward Stephanie McCullah scored all of Whitley's first-quarter points as the Lady Colonels stayed close, trailing 10-9 after the period.
The Lady Tigers opened the second quarter with four straight points on baskets by Gray and eighth-grade forward Whitney Jackson to push their lead to 14-9. Whitley got as close as two on a Randal Holbrook basket with 2:07 remaining in the quarter, but Clay answered with a basket inside from Maleah Roberts and a 3-pointer from Gray and took a 24-18 lead into the locker room.
"Tonight, we just couldn't get over the hump," Anderson said. "We'd get close, then we'd make a mistake and they'd take advantage of it."
Holbrook's putback with 1:06 remaining in the third quarter pulled Whitley back within six, but Clay closed the period with a basket by Phillips and two free throws by Sarah Burchell to extend the lead to 35-25.
McCullah, who appeared to be injured when she took a charge from Jackson in the second quarter, missed six of her eight shots in the second half and was limited to six points. She finished with 15 points and seven rebounds.
Anderson said McCullah was hampered by the physical play of the Lady Tigers.
"I think she never did have her legs after the first part of the game," he said. "She got it, and Amanda (Brimm) caught it in the back a few times. She'd been having some back problems anyway. They were real physical with her in there, and they got by with it in the first half."
Burchell was pleased with Clay's defense, which forced 16 turnovers and limited the Lady Colonels to 33 percent (14-for-44) shooting for the game.
"We have two styles of teams," he said. "I've got some big girls, and we'll play slow in the halfcourt, and I can go with some quicker substitutes to really get after them and put pressure on the ball. That's what we did tonight."
Clay County (27-5) made six of nine shots in the fourth quarter, while the Lady Colonels hit just four of 15. Phillips scored 10 points in the period and Gray added seven to help the Lady Tigers pull away.
Whitley County (23-9) will lose its leading scorer, McCullah, but the rest of the team will remain intact next season.
"You don't replace a kid like Stephanie McCullah," Anderson said. "That's the one thing that concerns me - we don't have the scoring coming back from the perimeter. We've got a lot of work to do at developing some other kids coming up.
"There were nine underclassmen on this team, and they had never been in this position. For us to play as competitively as we did, I thought at times was pretty amazing. I'm excited about next year."
The Lady Tigers will defend their regional crown against South Laurel tonight at 7:30.
"We've got to guard," Burchell said. "South Laurel is as good a shooting team as there is in the state of Kentucky. We've got to get up in their face and be very physical with them. If they're shooting the ball (well), they're going to be in the ballgame with anybody."
CLAY COUNTY (27-5)
Sarah Burchell 0-1 2-2 2, Page Jackson 2-10 5-5 9, Stephanie Jackson 2-8 2-4 6, Whitney Jackson 1-3 3-5 5, Maleah Roberts 2-2 0-2 4, Gemma Gray 6-6 6-8 21, Jordan Phillips 5-7 2-2 12, Danielle Fisher 0-0 2-2 2, Jessica Mosley 0-0 0-0 0, Morgan Mills 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-37 22-30 61.
WHITLEY COUNTY (23-9)
Kayla Osborne 2-7 3-4 7, Holly Jones 3-9 0-0 7, Stephanie McCullah 6-15 2-3 15, Randal Holbrook 2-6 5-7 9, Amanda Brimm 1-5 1-2 3, Amber Inman 0-0 0-0 0, Breanna Rhodes 0-0 0-0 0, Tabatha Gray 0-0 0-0 0, Ashliann Deaton 0-0 0-0 0, Whitlie Rose 0-0 0-0 0, Brittany Leach 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 14-43 11-16 41.
Clay County 10 14 11 26 - 61
Whitley County 9 9 7 16 - 41
3-point goals: Clay County 3-9 (Gray 3-3, Burchell 0-1, P. Jackson 0-1, S. Jackson 0-4), Whitley County 2-11 (Jones 1-5, McCullah 1-5, Leach 0-1). Rebounds: Clay County 30 (S. Jackson, Phillips 6), Whitley County 26 (McCullah 7). Assists: Clay County 8 (S. Jackson 3), Whitley County 4 (Osborne 2). Turnovers: Clay County 14, Whitley County 16. Fouled out: None.