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.
Three-point goals by Harris and Saylor in the third helped Lincoln post a 38-26 lead with 1:57 to go in the period.
Then Casey came roaring back. The Lady Rebels outscored Lincoln 18-6 over the rest of regulation, beginning with a run of eight unanswered points. Terry scored to end the third period, then Douglas collected a bucket and a 3-pointer and Lakken Miller followed with a layup to trim the Lincoln lead to 38-35 with 5:39 left in the fourth.
Lincoln, which shot 45 percent (17-for-38) from the field overall, got just one of seven tries to fall in the fourth quarter. Fox hit the lone field goal midway of the period.
Casey, which was at 43 percent (20-for-47) from the field, went 4-for-6 in the fourth, with Terry stepping to the left corner for the final bucket, a 3-pointer, to tie the game at 42-all. Cochran gave Casey its first lead just seconds later only to have Fox tie it right back up to force overtime.
“The first half I felt like we were trying to run some different offenses, different sets, and we kind of got out of sync a little bit,” Salyers said. “So the second half we stuck to one particular offense and tried to spread them out a little bit and take them off the dribble. Then, if we had good post matchups we tried to take advantage of that.”
“We had our chances. They had their chances. It was a great game. It just came down to certain situations and that’s just the way the ball bounces, as they say.”
Lincoln’s holding off Casey to earn a return trip to Bowling Green came as a great relief for Saylor. She helped secure the win by scoring Lincoln’s final three points of the game on a 3-for-6 stint at the foul line, but she wasn’t feeling secure when she stepped to the line for the shots.
“I was very nervous,” she said. “I admit I have some confidence issues since we played at Woodford when my shot wouldn’t fall for nothing. I’ve had problems with it, but I knew I had to make them for my teammates, and I’m glad they fell.”
Lincoln will play Owensboro Catholic (24-7) in the first round Thursday, March 14, at noon. Catholic claimed the 3rd Region title by beating Meade County 58-51.
Lincoln was 6-for-12 from 3, and went 16-for-25 at the charity stripe.
Casey was 6-for-21 from 3 and 8-for-14 at the foul line.
Lincoln outrebounded Casey 28-22, led by Rachel Spangler with eight boards. Johnson had six rebounds for Casey and Douglas and Terry each had five.
The Lady Patriots had 15 turnovers, 10 assists and five steals while the Lady Rebels had 10 turnovers, seven assists and nine steals.
12th Region Tournament
at Pulaski Co. / Championship
1 2 3 4 OT Final
Lincoln 9 18 11 6 12 - 56
Casey 5 12 11 16 10 - 54
LINCOLN (27-5) - Emily Fox 14, Ciara Saylor 11, Sydney Harris 13, Kourtney Belcher 9, Chansler Gilbert 3, Spencer Sims 6.
CASEY (15-15) - Jasmine Johnson 12, Katie Douglas 12, Lakken Miller 8, Sarah Beard 1, Christine Terry 10, Tiara Cochran 7, Mariah Richardson 4.
Sydney Harris, Lincoln Co.; Jasmine Johnson, Casey Co.; Cassidy Martin, Mercer Co.; Adison Corder, Southwestern; Christin Terry, Casey Co.; Kourtney Belcher, Lincoln Co.; Katie Douglas, Casey Co.; Bethany Edwards, Somerset; Catheryne Claunch, Mercer Co.; Marlee Smith, Boyle Co.; Kaylee Cotton, McCreary Central; Ciara Saylor, Lincoln Co.; Hannah Harris, Boyle Co.; Summer Burke, Burgin; Emily Fox, Lincoln Co.