SOMERSET - The Lincoln County girls are just one step away from reclaiming their regional title.
Lincoln overcame a major obstacle on the way to a possible repeat by defeating Mercer County 66-59 in a girls 12th Region Tournament semifinal Monday night at Pulaski County.
Belcher was one of three Patriots in double figures as Lincoln advanced to tonight’s championship game with Casey County. Belcher finished with 18 points, six rebounds and two assists. Emily Fox led the team with 19 points, five rebounds and three steals, and Sydney Harris scored 16 points and had eight rebounds and two assists.
The Patriots came into the contest with a 22-game win streak over regional opponents.
Lincoln (26-5) used a 9-0 run to post a 27-19 halftime lead, and led by as many as 12 in the third quarter. But Mercer (25-9) trimmed the lead to 52-51 and was within 61-58 with 19.3 seconds to go before the Patriots sealed the win at the free-throw line.
Lincoln, which was 19 for 27 at the foul line, was 5 for 6 in the final 14.8 seconds.
“They made huge runs tonight,” McWhorter said. “Mercer County kept knocking down big shot after big shot, and we turned the ball over. We tried to give it away at times, and somehow found a way to come out on top.”
“I tell the girls all the time that a game is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. You have to play start to finish. You’re not going to win it in the first two minutes of the ballgame and you’re not going to lose it in the last two. It takes a full, complete game. You have to play every possession.”
Mercer coach Chris Souder said he knew Lincoln would be a strong opponent.
“They are a good basketball team, a veteran basketball team,” he said. “You’ve got to do the little things. You’ve got to make free throws, and we had some costly turnovers. ... You’ve got to take advantage when you have opportunities, and when we had opportunities we didn’t take advantage of it. And good teams are going to beat you when you do that.”
The Titans, who fell to Lincoln 64-55 in the regular season, had a chance to tie the game early in the fourth quarter when Harris fouled Cassidy Martin on a 3-point shot attempt. Martin, who had a game-high 26 points, could not get her shot to fall, but she did convert all three free throws to make it a 46-45 with 7:35 remaining.
The Martin free throws were the culmination of a 10-0 Mercer run. Raegan Freeman hit inside to open the run, Carli Souder added a 3-point goal and Martin made five free throws to whittle a 46-35 deficit down to just one point.
Back-to-back 3-pointers from Harris and Fox put an end to the run and boosted Lincoln’s lead to 52-45. However, Mercer answered the pair of treys with another run, as Martin nailed a 3-point goal and Catheryne Claunch got a free throw toss then went coast to coast off a steal to make it 52-51 with 4:30 left.
Kandace Gash then drove the baseline late to get Mercer within 59-56, and Freeman scored on a turnaround jumper for a 61-58 margin.
But every time Mercer threatened, the Patriots went to the foul line. In fact, free throw shooting provided all of Lincoln’s points in the final 4:22. The Patriots, who were at 51 percent (21 for 41) overall from the field, attempted only three field goals after Fox’s trey, preserving their lead by sinking 14 of 21 free-throw attempts.
Fox sank four straight foul shots after Claunch cut it to 52-51, Rachel Spangler and Fox hit one apiece after Gash’s score, then Lincoln closed on a 5-for-6 run, with Spangler sinking three free throws and Harris two.
“We couldn’t get over the hump,” Souder said. “And we felt like if we could’ve got over the hump maybe it would’ve been different. They would’ve got a little more pressure on them. It hurt us when Catheryne and Cassidy fouled out, but even then our kids kept battling.”
“We’re not going to quit. We’re never going to quit. We’re going to keep coming at you and keep coming at you and keep coming at you. Every time we’d get right there, Lincoln would make a big shot or they made their free throws and we didn’t. You can’t miss 10 free throws and beat those teams.”