Survive and advance: Titans take Lincoln County’s best shot, win by three

Published 12:51 am Saturday, March 3, 2018

STANFORD — The 4,200 or so fans in attendance at Lincoln County High School’s J.C. Eddleman Gymnasium Friday night got every bit of their money’s worth.

Survive and advance is the name of the game at regional tourney time and both the Mercer County Titans, the reigning region and state champion, and the host Lincoln County Patriots were fighting tooth and nail to extend their season in the 12th Region Tournament semifinal round.

Mercer, which cruised to an 82-55 win over Lincoln in the regular season, would claim the victory Friday and advance to the championship game, but it would be no cakewalk in the rematch as the Patriots challenged from start-to-finish before the Titans escaped with the 67-64 victory.  

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“We knew it wouldn’t be like that (first game),” Mercer Coach Chris Souder said. “I just want to give credit to Coach (Cassandra) McWhorter and Lincoln County. They played their hearts out and that’s one of those games that they really didn’t deserve to lose. I’d say probably our leadership and the fact that I have five seniors on the floor there pulled us through tonight.”

“We didn’t play well, but give Lincoln credit. I thought they caused us to play that way.”

Mercer (31-3) pulled ahead 38-30 at the half and led by as many as nine points in the third quarter, but Lincoln battled back, using a 21-11 run to pull within 51-49 at the end of the third and edge ahead 61-60 with 1 minute, 55 seconds left in the ballgame.   

Emma King, who had a game-high 32 points, drove inside for a bucket to cap off Lincoln’s 21-11 run to give the Patriots a one-point lead. But Seygan Robins, who led Mercer with 30 points, answered with a three-point play to nose the Titans back in front 63-61 and they never trailed again.

“We couldn’t pull away and we kept fouling. Emma King hit a couple big shots and then (Trinity) Shearer hit a big 3 so they weren’t going to go away,” Souder said. “I told our kids, ‘They aren’t going to go away. You’re going to have to beat them.’ And they pulled us through.”

Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter, whose team finishes at 24-7, struggled to find her words post-game.

“I really don’t know what to say,” she said. “I knew coming into the game that they were ready. That they were focused. That I was going to get the best game I’ve got all year out of my players. And I got that tonight. I couldn’t ask any more of them. I’m proud of them.”

‘It’s not how we wanted the game to turn out, but we did our job that we were supposed to do on everybody,” she said. “We held them to two people in double figures. We had more than them in double figures. My coaching staff, the girls on the team did everything they could in that game.”

The Patriots had three players in double figures, with Maddy Boyle scoring 11 points and Trinity Shearer getting 10 points.

Lincoln and Mercer traded leads back and forth throughout the first quarter, with the Titans overcoming a 15-12 deficit to go up 16-15 at the end of the period. Toni McCombs, who came off the bench to score 21 points, sank two free throws and Robins closed with a bucket.

Mercer maintained its lead throughout the second quarter, opening the frame with 3-point shots from Faith Lake and McCombs. The Titans rolled off four quick points to end the first half, with Robins and McCombs closing, again, with each getting a field goal for a 38-30 halftime advantage.

Robins and McCombs broke on an 8-0 run midway through the third quarter to give Mercer its biggest lead of the game, 49-40, with 3:27 left in the third. The two had four points apiece in the run.

“What can I say about Seygan and Toni,” Souder said. “They literally carried us. That’s what they do. They were huge tonight.”

Lincoln would answer the Robins-McCombs’ run with the largest run of the night, outpointing Mercer 21-11 to retake the lead. King poured in 17 of the 21 points in the run and Shearer and Zaria Napier each had two as Lincoln took a 61-60 lead before Mercer pulled back ahead to win.

“I knew we were going to battle and I knew we were going to battle to the end. We showed that and proved that,” McWhorter said. “I just want to say I’m proud of my team and how they battled. They finished strong. I’d rather lose with our own core group of Lincoln County girls any day.”

Souder said he knew the semifinal game with Lincoln would be a close contest.

“My schedule’s been brutal because of games like this,” he said. “During one of our timeouts, that’s what we told them – that our schedule is geared like that to finish games like this. I was really proud of how they played the game tonight.”

Neither team shot that well Friday, with Mercer going 23-for-69 from the field for 33 percent while Lincoln went 18-for-51 for 35 percent. The Patriots outscored the Titans at the foul line, going 24-for-33 compared to Mercer’s 16-for-23 stint.

With the win, the Titans move on to Saturday night’s championship game where they will defend their title against Casey County. Tipoff is at 5 p.m.

“We’re kind of spent, but we’ll be back here tomorrow,” Souder said. “Casey County has a nice ball club. They played great today so we’ll have to come back ready to roll.”