Lincoln County is taking the same team to the same place on the same mission. And the experience the Patriots will take on their second consecutive trip to the Girls Sweet Sixteen has to count for something, right?
Coach Cassandra McWhorter certainly thinks so. In fact, McWhorter said one reason she wanted the Patriots to make it to state last year was so they could gain experience they could use this year if they returned to Bowling Green with a senior-dominated team.
“It can’t be overstated,” McWhorter said. “We hoped to be able to make it last year so that if we were able to do it this year that they would have that experience out of the way. Now you’ve been there, you know what it’s like.”
Lincoln (27-5) didn’t lose a single senior from the team that won two games at last year’s state tournament, and McWhorter said the girls were itching to get back on the bus to Bowling Green almost as soon as they won the 12th Region championship eight days ago.
“They’re very focused,” she said. “The night we won the region, they were already discussing it, saying, ‘We’re not satisfied.’ That’s been our motto since last year. ... There’s a sense that they’ve been there, and now they want to go do something special.”
In one sense, they already have. Lincoln is only the third team since 1989 to win the 12th Region in consecutive years — and the first local team ever to do so.
“We’ve had a year to continue to improve, we’ve had a year to grow up and mature, and hopefully we’re not making the same mistakes we were a year ago,” McWhorter said. “You’re not going to have your best game every night, but I definitely think being there last year will help us with experience and kind of knowing what to expect walking into Diddle Arena.”
Waiting for them will be Owensboro Catholic (24-7), which won the 3rd Region for the second time three years and which features one of the top players in the nation in guard Rebecca Greenwell, a Duke signee.
“She’s a McDonald’s All American. She’s a very good player, and you have to be to be worthy and deserving of that kind of honor,” McWhorter said.
What Owensboro Catholic does not have is the amount of experience Lincoln has on the state’s biggest stage. Only three current Aces saw action in the 2011 state tournament.
“For the most part, it’s a fairly new experience for us,” Owensboro Catholic interim coach Michael Robertson said. “They’ve got everybody back from last year when they went to the final four. I expect them to be ready and not in awe of the tournament. Hopefully we’re not, either.”
The Aces do have the experience of winning the All “A” Classic earlier this season, however.
“The All ‘A’s’ great and awesome and everything, but this is a whole ’nother beast,” Robertson said. “But it gives our girls confidence that hopefully they feel like they can play with anybody in the state.”
These two teams have already gotten acquainted, having met Dec. 23 in Lexington Catholic’s Christmas tournament. Lincoln won that game 65-53 — it was the only win by either team in that tourney — but Owensboro Catholic was without Greenwell and guard Leah Greathouse, who were injured.
“I watched that tape, and I believe we played a 1-2-2 (zone defense) that whole game. We still play that, but we also play a lot more man, so that tape really didn’t help me a whole lot,” Robertson said.
Robertson was an assistant coach then, but he took over the team after coach Ray Zuberer was suspended and later fired following his arrest on DUI charges the night before the All “A.”
Greenwell leads Owensboro Catholic with 22.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but McWhorter said other Aces are dangerous as well.
“We don’t want the girls to focus so much on her that they forget to defend the rest of the team,” she said.
Freshman guard Mikayla Berry scored 23 points in the teams’ first meeting and averages 8.9 per game.
“She’s a good scorer, very athletic, and we didn’t defend her well in (that) game. We don’t want to let her hurt us again in this game,” McWhorter said.
Guard Kaylyn Pearson averages 14.0 points, and Robertson said everyone in his lineup is a scoring threat.
“They’ve all had double-figure scoring games, and sometimes we’ll have four or five people in double figures. And we’ve got four off the bench we can go to ... and they’ll all do certain things,”¿he said.
Robertson said he has a pretty good idea of how Lincoln would like to defend his team.
“I know they’re going to press us and try to trap us and want to get the game speeded up, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with,” he said.
He said he knows the Aces can’t focus on stopping a single Lincoln player, either.
“(Guard Emily) Fox is an outstanding player, but they’ve got five girls who can all put the ball in the basket. We’ll have to really defend well and rebound the basketball to compete with them,” Robertson said.
Fox is the Patriots’ leading scorer for the second straight year at 17.1 points per game, and she scored her 2,000th career point last week in the regional finals. Forward Sydney Harris (15.9) and center Kourtney Belcher (9.2) have seen their scoring averages rise sharply this year, and guards Ciara Saylor and Rachel Spanger can also score in spots.
Lincoln also has four players averaging at least five rebounds per game: Harris (7.2), Spangler (6.2), Belcher (4.7) and Fox (4.0).
And the Patriots are deeper than they were a year ago.
“I definitely think we have a deeper bench than probably most teams in the state tournament,” McWhorter said. “One of my philosophies is if you dress, then you’re capable of playing. A lot of those players that are over there have seen a lot of time this season, and I think when I call their number or their name, they’ll be ready to go.”