Rather than simply hanging out, the Lincoln County High School girls basketball team decided to help out.
The state tournament hadn’t gone quite the way players hoped it would, but what the Patriots did after they lost last week at the Girls Sweet Sixteen generated enough good memories and goodwill to make their trip much more than a typical one-and-done experience.
The Patriots knew next to nothing about Notre Dame and its players, but by the end of the tournament, they had made some friends and won some fans with a simple act that began as equal parts compassion and distraction.
“I think it was a little bit of both,” Lincoln senior Ciara Saylor said. “We wanted to make their night, and we ended up kind of making our night, too.”
The tournament’s most unique cheering section formed on the evening of March 14, just a few hours after Lincoln lost its first-round game against Owensboro Catholic, when the team returned to E.A. Diddle Arena at Western Kentucky University for the Thursday evening session.
“Any loss is hard to take, but one like that, especially, because we knew without a doubt that we could’ve won the game,” Saylor said. “But we knew everything happens for a reason, and we were just trying to make the most of it.”
The Patriots already had planned to stay in Bowling Green for the rest of the week, as many teams often do at the boys and girls state tournaments even after losing in the first round.
“I had told the girls that we needed to enjoy the tournament ... and enjoy their time together,” Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter said.
As the final game of the night was getting under way, the Patriots noticed that Notre Dame’s end-zone cheering section, where most teams typically have dozens or even hundreds of fans, was all but empty for its game against Madison Central.
Only two girls from the Covington parochial school had made the trip to cheer for the Pandas — the game was late and there was school the next morning — so the Lincoln girls offered to help them.
“We just asked them, ‘Is it OK if we join you?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ They acted just happy with it,” Saylor said.
By coincidence, Lincoln’s coaches happened to be sitting directly in front of Notre Dame’s principal at that Thursday night game.
“She couldn’t believe that our kids would go over there out of the blue, not really knowing anybody,” McWhorter said.
The Notre Dame players and their parents had taken notice, too.
“I think they really enjoyed the support, especially without their own school being there. We could just see the excitement on the players’ faces and the coaches’, and on their parents’ faces, too,” Saylor said.
Notre Dame won its first-round game, so the Patriots were cheering them on again 24 hours later in their quarterfinal win over Marshall County. By then, they had a chance to meet some of the players they were rooting for.
“We showed up early one day and actually sat with them before they played, and a few of us got to talk with them here and there,” Saylor said, adding that some of the players from the two teams likely will keep in touch through Twitter and Instagram.
Unbeknownst to them, Notre Dame’s players had made another connection with Lincoln. They found an oversized cutout of McWhorter’s 2-year-old daughter, Keziah, wearing Minnie Mouse ears — one of dozens of cutouts Lincoln students had used during their game — in an arena trash can and adopted the girl — or at least her likeness — as their own.