SOMERSET — There’s a reason why few teams win back-to-back regional titles. Simply put: repeating isn’t easy.
The Lincoln County girls learned as much Tuesday night in a roller coaster ride through the 12th Region Tournament championship game, as they reclaimed the title and a return trip to the Girls Sweet Sixteen by edging out Casey County in a 56-54 overtime thriller at Pulaski County.
“I’m speechless,” Lincoln senior Ciara Saylor said after accepting the champions’ trophy with her teammates. “It’s what we’ve worked for all season, a repeat. It wasn’t easy at all. They played an awesome game. It was a battle for sure.”
Lincoln (27-5) led by as many as 14 points in the first half and was up 38-26 late in the third quarter before Casey broke on an 18-6 tear to make a game of it and force overtime. After trading leads early in the extra period, Sydney Harris bombed in a 3-point goal with 1:56 on the clock to put Lincoln ahead for good.
The Lady Patriots, who were 9-for-11 from the free-throw line in regulation, hit just seven of 14 attempts in the overtime period, but Kourtney Belcher and Saylor collected three apiece in the final 1:22 to lift Lincoln over Casey.
Casey (15-15) had the opportunity to tie or go ahead after Saylor missed the backend of a two-shot foul with just 3.3 ticks left, but Belcher picked off the long throw to the basket as time expired.
“Finally! I can finally breathe again,” Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter said. “People had told me all day today at school that it was going to be an easy game because of the records and our win (55-40)¿in the regular season. But I told our girls to block out everything that people are saying to you because this is a championship game. It’s tournament time, and you’d better take care of business.”
McWhorter said knowing that her team would be facing Randy Salyers and his Lady Rebels in a second straight region championship didn’t ease her mind pregame.
“Coach Salyers does such an excellent job with his team, his programs. That’s why he’s in the Hall of Fame as a player, as a coach,” she said. “His kids believe in what he does, and they play for him. They are not going to get down, especially in a championship ball game. I’m just glad we could pull it out and be on top.”
Salyers said he had been preparing his team all year for a chance to contend in the region final.
“We came in here to win, and to prepare us for that we knew what kind of schedule we had to play,”¿he said. “I told the girls before the season even started that I’m not worried about our record. I’m worried about us getting better and better and better. And we did that all year long. And it helped us tonight. It’s unbelievable thinking we were down 14 the first half, cut it to 10 at halftime and just didn’t give up on what we wanted to do. We just kept battling, kept battling, kept battling.”
Lincoln never trailed in the game until just 56 seconds remained in regulation when Tiara Cochran capped off Casey’s 18-6 run with two free throws to nose the Lady Rebels ahead 44-42. However, Lincoln’s Emily Fox answered Cochran’s free throws with two of her own to deadlock the game at 44-all with 42.6 on the clock.
Cochran almost delivered the win for Casey as time wound down in regulation. An offensive foul on Sarah Beard with 28.5 showing gave possession back to Lincoln, but Cochran picked off the Lady Patriots as the clock dropped under eight seconds, then heaved the ball to Christin Terry near the baseline. Terry got off a shot, but the potential game-winner came after the horn sounded.
“That was too close,” McWhorter said. “You don’t want it to be that close. You’d like to have that cushion. We had a little bit of a cushion, but they just battled and came back on us.”
Lincoln got off to a good start, with Fox opening the game with a layup off a turnover, Saylor nailing a 3-point goal and Harris scoring back-to-back goals to give the Lady Pats a 9-5 lead.
The senior trio would lead Lincoln’s scoring in the win. Fox had a game-high 14 points with five rebounds and two steals, Harris scored 13 points and grabbed five boards and Saylor finished with 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Terry, one of three Lady Rebels in double figures with 10 points, tallied all of Casey’s first-quarter goals, including a 3-point shot.
Casey, which was just 2-for-9 in the first period, got a boost when Jasmine Johnson, who finished with 12 points, bombed in two 3-point goals and a field goal in the second quarter. However, Lincoln countered with 15 points over the same 7-minute span to build on its lead.
Belcher knocked down the first four points off jumpers, Fox followed with two free throws and a trey, Saylor went baseline for a score then Spencer Sims hit back-to-back goals to give Lincoln a 24-10 advantage with 1:50 left in the first half.
A Chansler Gilbert trey with a minute showing kept the margin at 14 but Cochran and Katie Douglas, who also had 12 points, scored four straight points in the paint to make it 27-17 at the half.