Prep Basketball: Cold-shooting Mercer girls hold off McCreary 57-51 in 12th Region Tournament
Catheryne Claunch of Mercer County shoots over McCreary Central defenders Brittany King, centere, and Kaylee Cotton during the first quarter of Mercer's 57-51 victory Thursday in a 12th Region Tournament first-round game at Pulaski County. (Mike Marsee / February 28, 2013)
Poor shooting placed the Titans in jeopardy in the first round of the girls 12th Region Tournament, and their game Thursday night against McCreary Central went down to the wire before they escaped with a 57-51 victory at Pulaski County.
Not that they were entirely surprised. Their first-round games in each of the last six years, four wins and two losses, have been decided by less than 10 points.
“We knew we could beat them, but it’s been like this every year at the start of the region,” Mercer guard Catheryne Claunch said. “We know we have a chance when we come in to get pretty far, so it’s basically getting mentally prepared for the game every time before we play, and I guess ... we just don’t get mentally focused all the time. That’s the biggest thing I think we need to do for the first round.”
If there was a lack of focus, it manifested itself in poor shooting. Mercer (25-8) hit only one of 20 3-point shots and 18 of 33 free throws, and the Titans’ struggles at the foul line kept them from putting the game away until the final minute.
“I feel like it’s a lot of pregame jitters. First game of the region, first round, everyone’s got some the jitters that they need to get out,” Claunch said.
The Titans were sharp on defense, however. They forced McCreary into 23 turnovers, including one big one in the closing seconds.
Mercer moves on to a semifinal Monday against defending champion Lincoln County, which defeated Somerset 62-43 in its first-round game Thursday, and coach Chris Souder said he won’t concern himself too much with how the Titans got there.
“Give McCreary some credit. They had a good game plan, and we knew it was going to be like this,” Souder said. “They’ve got some good players, but they don’t have much bench. We just kept saying, ‘If we can keep the pressure on, we’ll wear them down,’ and luckily we got just far enough ahead. We’ve got to shoot free throws better, though.”
Mercer was 7 for 15 at the foul line in the fourth quarter, and Claunch, a 63 percent shooter, missed seven of 12 attempts. She was fouled five times in the final 3 minutes, 38 seconds after McCreary realized she was struggling at the stripe.
The Raiders cut a five-point deficit to two after Claunch missed four of six shots on three trips to the line. Heidi Huffman got free for a wide-open layup — one of at least four the Titans had in the fourth quarter — at 1:08 to give the Titans a 53-49 lead, but Brittany King got a layup on the other end nine seconds later. Claunch missed two free throws at :53, but Raegan Freeman rebounded for the Titans, and seconds later she got the ball to Huffman for another open layup that made it 55-51 with 32 seconds left.
Claunch then came up with a steal with 17 seconds to play and was fouled once more, and this time she hit two free throws to put the game out of reach. It was the last of 18 steals for the Titans, including four each by Claunch and Kandace Gash and three each by Huffman and Cassidy Martin.
“I feel like we dodged a really big bullet, especially there at the end of the game when the free throws and the 3s would have probably come in handy,” Claunch said.
Martin scored 17 points, Claunch had 15 and Huffman had 10 for Mercer, though the three girls were a combined 0 for 10 from 3-point range.
Meanwhile, McCreary’s top scorer and rebounder was a non-factor down the stretch. Kaylee Cotton had 22 points and 10 rebounds, but she picked up her fourth and fifth fouls early in the fourth quarter and sat out the final 6:11.
“She was kind of having her way down there,” Souder said. “Lefties are hard to defend in the paint, and that girl’s strong and she’s just a freshman, so that was huge.”
The Titans held the Raiders’ other double-digit scorer, Candance Foster, to eight points with a defensive effort was led by Carli Souder in her first sustained action since suffering a dislocated elbow Feb. 2.
“It was good to have Carli back, because Carli wasn’t going to leave her,” Chris Souder said.
Carli Souder also had Mercer’s only 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Titans a 42-38 lead seconds after the last of nine lead changes in a game neither team led by more than six points.