BOWLING GREEN — The word "special" gets tossed around a lot by coaches at the state tournament.
But Coach Mark Evans could search a thesaurus and never find a better word to describe his Mercy team, which won the Houchens Industries/KHSAA Girls Sweet Sixteen 71-61 over Scott County on Saturday night.
It was the second title for the Jaguars and a first state championship for Evans, who smiled and called himself an old man afterward.
Evans has been coaching a long time — 18 seasons as a head coach — but he said in all of his years he's never had a team that was this connected, this seamless.
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"They're truly special," he said. "Their joy and their fun for each other helped me to loosen up," he said. "This team has taught me more than I've taught them.
"They enjoy one another ... plus they're pretty damn good, too."
It showed in the team's balance.
At Diddle Arena Saturday, Mercy had three players in double figures, including Juliann Miller, who had 23 points and eight rebounds.
After Miller fumbled through the Saturday morning semifinals, Evans openly questioned the guard's mental fortitude.
Before the title game, he told her to forget the past and he reminded her before the title game to go out and have some fun.
Miller responded by scoring eight points in the pivotal third quarter when Mercy turned a slim 35-32 halftime lead into an 11-point advantage with 34 seconds to go in the third quarter.
"We know the third quarter is our quarter," said guard Ellen Sholtes, the tournament Most Valuable Player. "It's our time. We believe the other team's getting tired and we can take over."
Sholtes had 18 points, eight rebounds and four assists. She scored six, including the bucket that gave Mercy its 11-point lead.
Malisa Cruz added 14 points and 12 boards for the Jags, who won their sixth straight game.
"They expect good things to happen," Evans said when asked about his team's third-quarter runs that have been a calling card this tournament. "It's a confidence thing. They think in the third quarter Mercy's going to change its defense and we're going to get a run."
It was the 10th straight year a team from one of the Louisville or Lexington area regions won a state championship. The last team that wasn't from one of those to win was West Carter in 2000.
The championship also was the third straight for a team from Louisville. Butler and Iroquois won the two previous championships here.
The Cardinals, playing in their first state title game since they won it all in 1995, fought back a few times to cut it to six in the fourth quarter, but it was too late.
They had survived a tough first-round test against Belfry, followed by a game that went to the final seconds against No. 6 Boone County.
Then on Saturday morning, they played a heated contest that went down to the wire with No. 5 Rockcastle County. Shots that had fallen all week at Diddle Arena were clinking off the front of the rim.
"The tank was just dry," Scott Coach Steve Helton said. "We completely ran out of gas."
But he credited his Cardinals, whose win streak of 17 games ended in the championship, with never giving up.
"Even when they didn't have anything left, these kids showed the heart and the desire of a champion," he said. "We just fell a little short."
Kristen Stainback, who shined for the Cardinals all week, was spectacular again in this game despite playing more minutes (131 in all) than anyone else in the tournament.
The junior guard finished with 26 points.
Madisen Webb added 12 points and eight rebounds, but she scored only two points in the second half, when Scott County couldn't seem to get anything going.
Fellow senior Alex McKenzie added eight points and a game-high 13 rebounds for Scott, which was outrebounded 46-34.
"It hurts to see them hurt so bad," Helton said. "But I hope this adds fuel to our fire to work hard in the off-season," he said. "Maybe one day we'll have an opportunity like this again."
Next week, the Cardinals' boys team, many of which were in the Diddle Arena stands Saturday, will have its shot to become the third team in state history to have their boys and girls teams reach the state finals in the same year.
Ashland (1928) and Lafayette (1979) are the only teams that have accomplished the feat previously.