Defensive switch key for Mercer County in semifinal win

Published 8:52 pm Saturday, March 10, 2018

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS – For most teams, it would be a risky move at best to switch to a zone defense in the semifinals of the state tournament after years of playing man-to-man almost exclusively. For Mercer County, however, it was exactly the right move.

Mercer put a stranglehold on George Rogers Clark in the semifinals of the Girls Sweet 16, introducing a zone that allowed it to open a 14-2 lead that was never threatened.

The Lady Titans went on to win 44-27, holding a GRC team that had averaged 61.3 points per game this season to 10 field goals and only one 3-point basket.

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“I told the girls, probably since they’ve been in high school that’s the best defensive performance that we’ve had,” Mercer coach Chris Souder said. “We don’t play a lot of zone … but after watching some film we decided today that’s what we wanted to do.”

Mercer, which will play Mercy or Boyd County for its second straight state championship Sunday, allowed 44 points in its first-round win over Murray and 66 in the quarterfinals against Owensboro Catholic.

“For some reason, we couldn’t guard a trash can here lately, so we thought we’d just go with a zone,” Souder said.

The result was the lowest point total allowed by Mercer in 12 state tournament games, and the sixth time game season in which the Lady Titans have held an opponent below 30 points.

Souder said the zones – Mercer used both a 3-2 and a 2-3 – worked so well because the players communicated well.

“I think in zone, we realize that we need to know where the shooters are and we realize that we have to communicate to each other, because we can’t leave them open or they’re going to knock down shots,” Mercer guard Emma Davis said.

“For some reason when we’re in zone we talk a whole lot better than we do in man-to-man,” Souder said.

Mercer focused its defensive effort on Clark’s top scoring threats, Kennedy Igo and Hayley Harrison, who combined for only 12 points, about half of their combined average.

“Everybody’s been driving on us and even getting to the foul line on us, so we thought that’s what we were going to do. (We wanted to) know where Igo and Harrison were at all times, and we just did a fabulous job,” Souder said.

GRC missed nine of its first 10 shots from the field and committed four turnovers as Mercer raced to a 14-2 lead early in the second quarter. The Lady Cardinals shot just 29 percent overall from the field and hit only one of 12 3-point shots.

Souder estimates that Mercer has played about 96 percent man-to-man defense, and he said they haven’t practiced the zone very much lately. But he said the better opponents the Lady Titans have played in the postseason have found holes in their man-to-man defense.

“Here lately the game plan on us is just to drive on us, so we just figured we’ve got to change it up a little bit. And we’re so long, the 3-2 is really good,” he said.

It isn’t an easy switch for many teams, but Souder said his players are talented enough and advanced enough to adapt on the fly.

“That’s the beauty of these kids,” he said. “We’ve told them, ‘You’re going to have to make adjustments at the next level, whether it be zone, man or whatever they ask you to do, so you might as well start doing it now.”