The Mercer County girls are preparing to take its best shot against the best team in the 12th Region, and their coach says they’ll have to do it all by themselves.
Mercer coach Chris Souder said he doesn’t know whether the Titans’ shot will be good enough to fell defending champion Lincoln County on Monday in the girls 12th Region Tournament semifinals, but he said he’s sure the Patriots won’t go down on their own.
“In my opinion, they’re the best team coming in here, they’re the team to beat. ... And we’ve been saying all year that somebody’s going to have to beat them; they’re not going to beat themselves. They’re just solid,” Souder said. “So we’ll go at them and see what happens, and if we can get it done we’ll get it done, and if not we’ll go down trying.”
Mercer might be positioned as well as anyone to take out Lincoln. The teams have the two best records in the region — Lincoln is 25-5; Mercer is 25-8 — and the Titans gave the Patriots two of the toughest fights they have had during a 22-game winning streak against regional opponents.
Lincoln knocked out Mercer last year on its way to the Girls Sweet Sixteen with a 54-50 victory in the regional semifinals, and the Patriots fought off the Titans for a 64-55 win on Feb. 5.
“Our first matchup was a tight game, and I look for it to be a tough battle again Monday night,” Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter said.
Of course, the stakes will be much higher Monday at Pulaski County in the all-local semifinals. The winner will play the winner of the Casey County-Boyle County semifinal the following night for the regional championship.
“We are honored to be in the semifinal game and look to do the same things that have continued to make us a successful program,” McWhorter said.
“We’re excited to get another chance at them,” Souder countered.
These are two teams that know each other well. They have faced off in February annually since 2001, and in recent years that late-season game has become one of the best girls games on the regional schedule.
Lincoln has won eight of their last nine meetings, including regional games in 2006 and ’12, and seven of the last 10 games in the series have been decided by less than 10 points.
In last month’s game at Lincoln, Mercer fell behind 30-16 in the second quarter but rallied to within three points late in the game before the Patriots prevailed.
Lincoln shot 48 percent from the field and had three players in double figures, but the Patriots also had 27 turnovers. Mercer shot 34 percent and was outrebounded 40-21.
“We created a lot of turnovers; we also gave up a lot of layups,” Souder said. “So we’re going to have to make some adjustments to see how to defend them. They’re smart, they’re disciplined, they’re seniors, and they just don’t make many mistakes.”
McWhorter said Mercer is dangerous as well.
“Mercer County is a well-coached team who has many different people who are capable of having big nights,” she said.
Mercer has one of the state’s top five scorers in guard Cassidy Martin, who is averaging 25.3 points and per game and shooting 53 percent from the field. Guard Heidi Huffman, who played for Lincoln last year before transferring back to Mercer, where she played in 2010-11, averages 11.7 points, and guard Catheryne Claunch averages 11.3 for the Titans, who rank among the top five offensive teams in the state at 67.2 points per game.
Guard Emily Fox, an Austin Peay signee, leads Lincoln with 17.1 points per game, followed by guard Sydney Harris at 16.0 and center Kourtney Belcher at 8.9. All three girls shoot 74 percent or better at the free-throw line for the Patriots, who are among the top 10 free-throw shooting teams in the state at 70.7 percent.
Casey County (14-15) vs. Boyle County (18-13)
This is the first trip to the regional semifinals since 2001 for Boyle, while Casey returned the bulk of a team that made a run to the finals last season.
Although Boyle beat Casey 56-49 on Feb. 5 at home, Boyle coach Greg Edwards knows the postseason is when Casey is usually at its best.
“It’s going to be a tough game. I’ve got a lot of respect for Randy and his program and what they do at Casey County,” Edwards said. “They’ve been really good for a long time.
“He’s got another (team) that kind of mirrors his style and the way he likes to play. We’re going to have our hands full. We’re going to have to play really well, l think.”
Casey coach Randy Salyers said the key for his team will be to get inside baskets rather than simply relying on its guards to score.
“If we do get the ball inside, our people have got to make plays. That’s one thing that’s bothered us a bit all year, and it still bothers us,” Salyers said. “If we get it inside, we have trouble finishing.”
Advocate sports writer Hal Morris contributed to this story.