Mercer girls fall to GRC in Sweet 16 opener

Published 11:43 am Thursday, March 9, 2023


Contributing Writer

LEXINGTON — It was too tall a task for Mercer County, but not by much.

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The Titans stood toe to toe with a taller foe Wednesday night in the first round of the Girls Sweet 16 before yielding to George Rogers Clark 51-43.

Mercer erased a 12-point deficit and had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter before GRC slammed the door in the closing minutes.

“They played a better game than us tonight,” Mercer coach Hayley Spivey said. “We cut it to one or two there in the third quarter and had a chance to take the lead. We struggled to put the ball in the basket, but I am extremely proud of the way my team played tonight and the toughness that they showed and the competitiveness that they showed.”

Mercer (21-14) wasn’t supposed to be at Rupp Arena in the first place after losing its star player before the season and then losing 10 of its first 14 games.

And the Titans, who start a 5-11 forward but have no one else taller than 5-9, had their hands full with 6-0 Brianna Byars and 6-1 Ciara Byars of GRC, who accounted for 36 of the Lady Cardinals’ 51 points.

But if the Titans were merely glad to be here after their run to the 12th Region championship last week, it didn’t show.

They withstood two scoring runs that allowed GRC (27-7) to build a 12-point lead in the first quarter, closed the gap in the second quarter and gave themselves a chance in the second half.

A layup by Mercer’s Teigh Yeast capped an 8-2 run and tied the game at 36-all with 7:50 remaining. GRC regained the lead second later on a 3-point shot by Anaya Chestnut, but a steal by Lindsay Jessie and a layup by Anna Drakeford, who led Mercer with 20 points, brought the Titans within one point at 39-38 with 6:28 to play.

A second steal by Jessie gave Mercer one chance to take the lead, but a missed shot led to a fast-break basket by GRC’s Brianna Byars that made it a 3-point game, and the Titans never got another.

The Lady Cardinals outscored Mercer 10-3 over a three-minute span to take a 49-41 lead with 2:44 to play, and the Titans got only two points in the final 4:35.

Ciara Byars scored eight points and Brianna Byars had four in the fourth quarter, when Clark went 6 for 8 from the field.

“In the fourth quarter I felt like we played with a little more fire, more juice,” GRC coach Robbie Graham said. “We finished a little more, the ball was moving, we executed a little better and were able to get some better shots.”

Mercer may have been outsized, but rebounding helped the Titans stay in the fight. They outrebounded the Lady Cardinals 26-22 overall and 15-11 in the second half.

Yeast had a game-high nine rebounds, reserve Payton Boyd had six and Drakeford had four.

Mercer made its sixth straight appearance and its first since winning consecutive state championships in 2017 and ’18. The Titans won 17 of 20 games after their 4-10 start as they regrouped following the loss of 2,000-point scorer Timberlynn Yeast to a preseason knee injury.

On offense, Drakeford and Yeast did most of the heavy lifting, taking 33 of Mercer’s 40 shots from the field, though Spivey said that wasn’t necessarily by design. Drakeford was 8 for 22, while Yeast was 3 for 11.

Jessie had nine points and three steals and Yeast had five assists for the Titans.