STANFORD — The Lincoln County boys put their hay in the barn early Tuesday night. Good thing for them they did.
The Patriots got the jump on Mercer County in the first quarter, then spent most of the remaining three periods fighting off the Titans for a 70-65 victory.
A lead that reached 15 points early in the second period was down to five by halftime and shrunk to as little as three in the second half before the Patriots prevailed.
Lincoln (13-14) was playing for the second straight night and for the third time in four days, but the Patriots hit the ground running against Mercer (14-10), which was also playing its second game in as many days.
The Patriots were at their best in the first quarter, when Luke Hill scored 14 of his 33 points. Hill went 6-for-7 from the field, and the Patriots were 10-for-14 without a turnover.
“Tonight we just came out, and I think we just played hard, I¿think we just gave it pretty much everything we could. Mercer’s a good team, but in the end it paid off for us,”¿Hill said.
Lincoln coach Jeff Jackson said he liked what he saw from his team early in the game.
“We got off to a really good start. I thought we defended really, really well and got Luke established, and those were two things we wanted to do,” Jackson said. “And then we stopped defending ... and they shoot the ball awfully well. They play hard, they’re well-coached and they keep playing, and they’re never out of a game because of the way they shoot the ball.”
Lincoln was the hot-shooting team in the early going. The Patriots scored the first 11 points — Hill had six of them —¿while Mercer missed four 3-point shots before getting on the board 3 minutes, 15 seconds in.
Hill assisted on a layup by Brandon Pittman and Neil Conley sank a 3-point shot to give Lincoln a 21-7 lead with 2:07 left in the first period, and the Patriots took their largest lead of 30-15 1:34 into the second quarter on back-to-back layups by Hill, who at that point had 18 points and was 8-for-9 from the field.
“Luke’s played well the last three or four ballgames, and we’re real proud of how hard he’s playing,” Jackson said.
Hill finished 14-for-20 from the field and 5-for-8 from the free-throw line. Neither he nor Jackson knew if his 33 points were a career high, but this was certainly one of his best games as a Patriot.
”It’s my last year, so really I’m trying to give it everything I have,” he said. “And I’ve got a really good point guard who’s going to give me the ball. That’s real important, too, because nobody on our team is selfish. Whoever’s night it is, we get them the ball.”
Timmy Taylor, the Patriots’ point guard, had 12 assists and only three turnovers in the latest in a growing list of games in which he has reached double figures in assists.
“He’s learning. He’s going to be really good point guard when he’s a senior — he’s already a good point guard. When he gets going, that gets all of us going, and he’s really the key to us playing good,” Hill said.
Taylor raised his season average to 8.2 assists per game.
“He can pass the ball, and these kids enjoy scoring, so they like playing with him,” Jackson said.
The Patriots were enjoying themselves when they were up 30-15, but things changed quickly as Mercer ran off six straight points while Lincoln went scoreless for about 2-1/2 minutes.
“We passed up a layup, turned it over twice and took a bad shot, and the next thing you know it’s 30-21,”¿Jackson said.
Lincoln responded with five straight points, but Mercer scored nine unanswered points in the last two minutes of the first half to pull within 35-30.
A 3-pointer by Jordan Duncan drew the Titans within three points at 37-34 with 5:18 left in the third quarter before the Patriots regained some breathing room with an 8-1 run that included another five points by Hill, including his third three-point play of the night.
Consecutive 3-pointers by John Ingram allowed Mercer to pull within 45-41, and the Titans were within four points once more in the third quarter and twice late in the game, but they got no closer.
Lincoln hit 12 of 17 free throws, but all five of its misses came in the final 1:06, leaving the door open for Mercer. But the Titans couldn’t capitalize, as they went 1-for-5 from the field and 0-for-2 at the foul line in the final 1:50.
“They kept fighting, and we found a way to hang on and win, and I was proud of our kids,” Jackson said. “I thought our zone was good tonight down the stretch. We played it the last thee minutes or so, and that’s the best we’ve moved out of it since the Madison Central game (Jan. 18). I thought we were really active out of it and moved out of it tonight.”