High School Basketball

Defending state champion takes down small-school champ in Sweet Sixteen opener

Mercer County's Faith Lake, 11, drives to the basket in front of Murray's Macey Turley, 5, during a first round game of the St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls' Sweet 16 basketball tournament played at BB&T Arena in Highland Height, Ky. Wednesday March 7, 2018.
Mercer County's Faith Lake, 11, drives to the basket in front of Murray's Macey Turley, 5, during a first round game of the St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls' Sweet 16 basketball tournament played at BB&T Arena in Highland Height, Ky. Wednesday March 7, 2018.

Defending state champion Mercer County overcame a slow start and a sloppy finish to fend off an upset bid by Murray, walking away with an 55-44 win in the opening round of the 57th St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen state basketball tournament Wednesday night.

BOX SCORE: MERCER COUNTY 55, MURRAY 44

Mercer County missed its first seven shots of the game and trailed 8-0 to open the first quarter. It responded with a 9-0 run to take its first lead and the teams traded leads for a while over the end of the first period and beginning of the second. Seygan Robins hit a three-pointer with 2:49 left in the second quarter to give Mercer County a 26-23 lead which it held for the remainder of the contest.

The Titans’ lead got all the way up to 18, 51-33, with 4:20 left but multiple missed free throws and turnovers allowed Murray to keep it tight down the stretch. The Tigers got it down to 51-43 with a 1:22 left; a three-point try would have cut it to five with under a minute to play but Titans senior Emmy Souder, an NKU signee, secured the rebound and hit two free throws to swell the lead back to 10 with 42 seconds left.

Robins, a Miss Basketball finalist who’s signed with Louisville, had a game-high 17 points, five steals, four rebounds and four assists. Souder finished with a double-double, 11 points and 11 boards.

Alexis Burpo led Murray with 14 points, 15 rebounds and six assists. Macey Turley, also a Miss Basketball finalist, had 10 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Tigers. Both girls, along with Lex Mayes, have signed with Murray State.

Mercer County held Murray to 5-for-30 shooting from behind the three-point line. The Tigers shot 35.7 percent from long range coming into the game.

“If we shoot 30 percent, we win the game,” Murray Coach Wyatt Foust said. “If we shoot 28 percent, we probably win the game.”

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Mercer County's Seygan Robins shot over Murray's Lex Mayes during Mercer’s 55-44 win in the first round of the Sweet 16 on Wednesday. Gary Landers

Titans Coach Chris Souder said his team hadn’t played too much zone defense this season but practiced it more leading up to the Sweet Sixteen. It deployed it in the second half, in which the Tigers made only two of their 19 attempts from outside.

The adjustment also helped Mercer County better account for Turley, who had eight points and two assists in the opening half.

“Macey is a great player,” Robins said. “She shoots the ball really well and she has a really high basketball IQ, so I knew we were gonna have to focus on her, and I thought we did pretty well tonight.”

From the 4:20 mark until there were 42 seconds left, Mercer County committed five turnovers and missed five straight free throws (including the front-end of three one-plus-the-bonus situations).

Souder said that was uncharacteristic of his team.

“We’re not really worried because these guys usually handle that great,” Souder said. “I don’t think the pressure got to ’em. … These (seniors), all four years of their high school career, their season has ended on this floor. That’s rare and impressive. We just tell ’em to relax and have fun.”

Murray won the All “A” Classic state championship in January. It was the second such title for its seniors, a group that went 112-15 over the last four seasons.

“That’s a pretty good career,” Foust said with a grin.

The Tigers played in three straight state tournaments, losing to the eventual champion in the semifinal round the last two years. Mercer County is favored to win this year’s tournament.

“When the draw came out, Coach Souder and I texted each other at about the same time and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Somebody really good is gonna go home,’” Foust said. “And tonight we picked a bad night to have a bad night from three.

“It’s part of who we are, it’s won us a lot of games. We had some looks. They didn’t fall but they were great shots. If we could do it over, I would do the same. We got what we wanted.”

Josh Moore: 859-231-1307, @HLpreps

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