Mercer County has made one Sweet Sixteen since opening in 1955. How they got there in 2000 was a bracket buster’s dream; the Titans swept the 12th Region Tournament, capped by a win over Harrodsburg, to whom they lost in the 46th District championship. They entered that postseason with an 11-15 record.
Beginning with Friday’s home game against Burgin, the Titans — ranked No. 1 in the first Associated Press poll and No. 4 in the first Cantrall Ratings of the season — would have to lose out the rest of the way to enter tournament play with 15 losses. They are 15-0 and the state’s only undefeated team after both Franklin County’s and Lyon County’s girls’ teams took losses last week. The unblemished record isn’t weighing too heavily on the minds of Mercer’s boys.
“It’s something we’re proud of but we gotta stay humble and work hard to be ready to come out and play every game,” said senior starter Will Hager, who has signed with Colorado School of Mines, a Division II school. He wants to be an engineer.
“My dad was researching good engineering schools and they popped up,” Hager said. “He found out that they had a really good basketball program and contacted the coaches. They talked a little bit and we had a tournament in Las Vegas and they came and watched me play. After that it took off.”
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The Titans might have the most complete starting five in the state. Malik Dow, a senior who transferred from Ballard, averages 12.3 points and 10.3 rebounds and is receiving college interest as both a basketball and football player. Dylan James, a junior transfer from Sheldon Clark, puts up 14.7 points and 7.3 rebounds and is nearly a 50-40-90 percent shooter (his overall field-goal percentage sits at 49.4 entering Friday). Sophomore Trevon Faulkner leads the team at 19.3 points per game and is a constant threat to tear off a rim. Alijah Mink, a senior with good basketball awareness, rounds out the talented, experienced group.
“It’s a special group of kids that play together and share the basketball,” Titans Coach Josh Cook said. “They’re talented but very humble and just wanna keep getting better.”
Cook is in his second year at Mercer County, which had seven 20-win seasons from 1955 to 2013. The Titans went 23-9 last season and will almost certainly have back-to-back 20-win campaigns for just the third time in their history.
One might think managing a team full of alpha dogs, as Mercer stumbled into with the influx of Dow and James, would be a headache. It’s been anything but, Cook said.
“We’re completely honest with our kids. We tell ’em what the goal is. Each night somebody different could be ‘the man.’ ... If you play together and work hard and you’re deserving, the game will bring some good things to you.”
It’s been easy getting acclimated to Central Kentucky after arriving from the mountains, James said.
“It’s different but Coach Cook is good with doing team-bonding activities with all of us. I like it. They took me in and made it feel like home.”
Mercer has defeated opponents, on average, by about 25 points. It’s had its scares, though. The Titans edged South Laurel, 52-51, in the Legacy Nissan Classic in the second game of the season and had to rally from 17 down in the first quarter to beat Madison Central in the Gateway Holiday Classic semifinals.
“They shot like 75 percent from three and 92 percent in the first quarter,” James said of the Indians. “Games like that happen. We were lucky to come out of there with the win.”
Hager attributed that comeback to the Titans’ growth from year one to year two under Cook and a bond among the guys which he feels is “really important” for them to continue playing at a high level.
“I feel like the difference between last year’s team and this year’s team is last year we maybe would’ve broke a little bit and laid down,” he said. “I don’t think there was a time in that game we thought we didn’t have a chance to win.”
Running the regular-season table won’t be a walk in the park. The Titans host 10th Region favorite Montgomery County on Jan. 19. Nine of their final 15 games are away from home, including trips to No. 5 Lafayette (Feb. 6), No. 13 Southwestern (Feb. 18) and No. 20 Wayne County (Jan. 15).
“Our team likes competition,” Faulkner said. “We come out every game and treat it like it’s the championship. ... We never think about No. 1.”
Mercer County two-fer?
The Mercer girls aren’t too shabby, either. They’ve jumped out to a 13-2 start and are tied with Butler for No. 2 in the Cantrall Ratings. So far they’ve picked up wins over No. 16 Simon Kenton and No. 25 Henry Clay to go along with a 6-0 record in their region. The Titans’ only two losses have come to No. 7 Bowling Green and No. 9 Sacred Heart.
Seygan Robins, a sophomore who already has offers from the University of Kentucky, WKU and Central Florida, leads Mercer County at 12.1 ppg. Lyric Houston and Lexy Lake, a sophomore and junior, aren’t far behind at 11.7 and 11.0 ppg, respectively. Mercer’s next three leading scorers — Emma Souder (9.0 ppg), Emma Davis (8.5 ppg) and Faith Lake (8.0 ppg) — are all sophomores too.
The Titans reached the Sweet Sixteen last season but were throttled by Elizabethtown in the first round. They’re the favorite to come out of the 12th Region for what would be their first back-to-back appearances. Four consecutive trips is certainly in play.
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The third annual Kentucky-Indiana Challenge Cup, which pits five Kentucky teams against five from its northern neighbor, takes place this weekend. It’s an event that’s treated the commonwealth kindly.
Kentucky teams have a 7-3 record against Indiana competition as part of the event, which alternates between sites in each state. This year it’s at the Frankfort Convention Center. Play gets underway at noon Saturday, with the Franklin County girls facing Columbus North. The remainder of the schedule features boys’ games: Madison Southern vs. Wood Memorial at 2 p.m.; Cooper vs. Jay County at 4 p.m.; Paul Laurence Dunbar vs. New Albany at 6 p.m.; Owen County vs. Forest Park at 8 p.m.
New Albany was ranked preseason No. 1 in Indiana’s Class 4A and features Romeo Langford, a star shooting guard who’s rated No. 24 by Scout.com in the class of 2018. He’s got offers from Indiana, Purdue, UCLA and Vanderbilt and is receiving interest from Louisville, Ohio State and West Virginia, among others.
For Dunbar, Darius Williams, Taveion Hollingsworth and Jordan Lewis are all drawing Division I interest but have not committed anywhere. Owen County’s Carson Williams has signed with Northern Kentucky.
Franklin County’s Malaka Frank has signed with Western Kentucky while Anna Arrastia will play at Georgetown College. Several schools are recruiting junior Princess Stewart, including Clemson, EKU, Morehead State and Xavier.
Harlan’s hot start
The Voice winner Jordan Smith isn’t the only person from Harlan who could perform in Rupp Arena this year.
Harlan’s girls have won at least 20 games under Coach Derrick Akal three of his previous five seasons, and they’re well on their way to a fourth. Harlan is 13-2, its best start under Akal. It opened on a seven-game win streak before falling to Bullitt East in the Mustangs’ holiday tournament.
“We’ve played well in spurts and been fortunate to win some of those games where we didn’t play well,” Akal said
The Dragons, rated No. 21 in the Cantrall Ratings, had a six-game streak end in Wednesday’s semifinals of the WYMT Classic at Knott County Central after falling 38-32 to Bell County, a team they’d beaten by 10 earlier in the year. It was Harlan’s first semifinals appearance; Bell County has never lost in the event (the Bobcats will meet Knott County Central in Saturday’s finals).
Much credit for Harlan goes to the play of Jordan Brock (19.4 ppg) and Brooklyn Massingill (18.1 ppg), both of whom shoot above 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc. Massingill, a senior, is about 5-foot-2 and a “defender and a really good ball handler,” Akal said. Brock, a 5-7 junior, is a skilled dribbler “who gets to the bucket and into the paint a lot.”
Harlan was picked in the preseason to win the 13th Region after coming off a 20-win season a year ago. It’s a runaway favorite to win its fifth All “A” regional in six years. That tournament begins with a home game against Red Bird on Tuesday. Akal’s team is ignoring the predictions.
“We’re not paying much attention to it. ... We’ve got a lot more to go.”
Kentucky boasts five nominees for the boys’ and girls’ McDonald’s All-American games, set for March 30. The official team rosters will be announced Jan. 17 at 10:30 p.m. on an ESPNU selection show.
Quentin Goodin of Taylor County, a Xavier signee, is the lone boys’ player to get the nod. He’s averaging 25 points and 7.7 rebounds for the Cardinals. If chosen for the team, Goodin would be the first Kentuckian not from Lexington or Louisville to make the roster since Scotty Hopson in 2008. He would be the first Kentuckian since Louisville’s D’Angelo Russell in 2014.
Erin Boley (Elizabethtown), Breanna Glover (Glasgow), Krystalline McCune (Manual) and Sarah Price (Bath County) were all nominated for spots on the girls’ team. All three of Kentucky’s previous girls’ roster selections came in this decade: Sara Hammond (Rockcastle County) in 2011, Makayla Epps (Marion County) in 2013 and Rebecca Greenwell (Owensboro Catholic) in 2013.
The Bryan Station girls take a seven-game win streak into their district battle at Scott County on Friday. The Defenders (11-4), who won the Mingua Beef Jerky Holiday Classic at the end of December, feature a trio of double-digit scorers — Destiny Cozart (16.6 ppg), Carah Burdette (15.6 ppg) and Ezzy Ighodaro (11.1 ppg).
Ighodaro, a senior who transferred from Paul Laurence Dunbar, almost recorded a triple-double this week. She had 23 points, 10 steals and eight rebounds in Station’s 80-67 win at Madison Southern. The Defenders are 4-1 against 11th Region competition this season.
▪ Madison Southern picked up its 400th boys’ basketball win in style, defeating Woodford County 58-55 at the buzzer on Tuesday. Junior guard Michael Jefferson received a 60-foot inbound pass from Caleb Miller with a second left, turned around without a dribble (Christian Laettner needed one) and let fly a game-ending, 25-foot three-pointer with a hand in his face.
The win, which came on the road, was also No. 200 for Eagles Coach Shane Buttry. Madison Southern is 10-5 after opening the year on a three-game losing streak.
▪ Bailey Daniel was the second Johnson Central girl to join the 1,000-point club this season after hitting the mark against Harlan County in the Golden Eagles’ first-round loss in the WYMT Classic on Monday. The first player to reach the mark was Lauren Delong, who did so in Johnson Central’s win at Sheldon Clark on Dec. 11.
▪ Madison Philpot, a senior with a 4.10 GPA, became the 13th girls’ player in Harrison County history to reach 1,000 points in the Fillies’ 49-34 win versus Lexington Christian on Monday. She had a game-high 19.
▪ Knott County Central junior Kristen Waugh reached 1,000 points in the Patriots’ 46-45 win in the WYMT Mountain Classic semifinals on Wednesday.
▪ Burgin will honor former basketball and football coach David Feeback on Saturday night between the Bulldogs’ boy-girl doubleheader versus Fort Knox. Feeback was the second-longest tenured boys’ coach in school history and also coached football for a time at Harrodsburg. In an email to the Herald-Leader, boys’ coach Don Irvine said the ceremony for Feeback and his family was “much overdue.”
“He was a guidance counselor and my public address announcer when I became boys’ basketball coach here in the late ’80s,” said Irvine, who is in his third stint as the boys’ coach and is also the school’s athletic director. “He is a fine ambassador for sports and made a huge impact on many student lives during his tenure as an educator and coach.”
▪ The Kentucky Christian Athletic Association’s All “A” tournaments will take place this weekend in Lexington on the campuses of Blue Grass Baptist and Trinity Christian. Play gets underway Friday.
Both championship games will be played at Blue Grass Baptist on Saturday. The girls’ game is scheduled for 5 p.m. with the boys’ game to follow at about 6:20 p.m.
Blue Grass Baptist is the No. 1 seed in both tournaments (the boys are 11-0 while the girls are 11-1). The full schedule can be found at kcaaonline.com.
▪ Midway through the season, the Breathitt County boys have already equaled their win total from last year. The Bobcats are 10-5 under first-year coach Robert Amis, who played for two Sweet Sixteen teams at Perry County Central in 2004 and 2005. He was an assistant at Marshall before taking over at Breathitt County, which finished 10-16 last season.
▪ Madison Central’s boys’ game at Cordia originally scheduled for Friday has been canceled. Cordia needed more time to prepare for hosting the 14th Region All “A” Classic, which begins Monday.