High School Basketball

Stifling defense leads Mercer County girls back to Sweet 16 title game

Mercer County’s Emma Souder, left, and Clark County’s Tyra Flowers battled for a rebound.
Mercer County’s Emma Souder, left, and Clark County’s Tyra Flowers battled for a rebound.

Defending champion Mercer County received an unwelcome wake-up call in the quarterfinals of the 57th St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen. The Titans barely survived a furious rally by Owensboro Catholic to escape with a one-point win.

In Saturday’s semifinals, they made sure not to hit the snooze button. Behind an oppressive defense built on full-court pressure and an active 2-3 zone, the Titans dominated Clark County 44-27 to reach their second straight state championship game.

Mercer County Coach Chris Souder made the decision to roll out a zone despite the fact the Titans rarely used one during the regular season.

“We don’t play a whole lot of zone ... But after watching some film we decided today that’s what we were gonna do,” said Souder. “Because for some reason we haven’t been able to guard a trash can here lately ... for some reason when they’re in a zone they talk, they communicate.”

The decision paid off. Mercer held the Cardinals to 28-percent field-goal shooting on the night. The Titans refused to concede open three-pointers, constantly shouting instructions to one another and closing out on open shooters. In the face of that fluid zone, Clark County managed to hit just one of 12 threes.

“I just told the girls in there that probably since they’ve been in high school that’s the best defensive performance that we’ve had,” Souder said.

Clark County went ahead 2-1 on a Haley Harrison jumper, but it was their only lead of the game and their only points of the first quarter. They were dealt a major blow when Harrison picked up her second foul less than a minute into the game. Mercer County reeled off an 11-0 run to end the quarter after the junior guard went to the bench.

The run ballooned to 14-0 before Harrison returned and knocked down a three-pointer to stop the bleeding. Minutes later Harrison drove right at Mercer County star Seygan Robins and found the basket to cut the deficit to 17-9, but the Cardinals couldn’t score the rest of the half as the Titans built a 22-9 lead heading into the locker room. Harrison scored seven of Clark County’s first-half points.

The Cardinals went on a 7-3 run to begin the second half, cutting the lead to 25-16. It was the last time they’d trail by less than ten points, as Mercer County responded with a 7-0 run punctuated by Faith Lake’s three-pointer.

During a game in which points were at a premium, Lake was huge for the Titans. She scored a game-high 11, hitting three of five shots from behind the arc.

“Faith was knocking down the open look and even when she missed ... I make eye contact and tell her ‘keep shooting,’” said Souder.

Emmy Souder had 10 points and six rebounds for Mercer County (35-3). Senior star Seygan Robins had seven points and five assists and scored on a pair of drives late in the fourth quarter to keep the game out of reach.

Shamaya Behanan led Clark County (28-8) with nine points and six rebounds. She’s one of just two players graduating for the Cardinals. With four starters and the bulk of their bench returning, Clark County Coach Robbie Graham expects the Sweet Sixteen hasn’t seen the last of the Cardinals.

“I’m not one of those ‘pat me on the back because we got to the final four,’ I want to cut nets down,” Graham said. “I told them, take a little time off then it’s back in the gym to get ready. Because we want to play on Sunday next year.”

Mercy 78, Boyd County 59: Despite facing a major size disadvantage Boyd County went toe-to-toe with Mercy for a half, taking a 35-33 lead on Savannah Wheeler’s tear-drop floater at the second-quarter buzzer.

But the Jaguars came out of the locker room on a mission. Mercy was relentless on both ends of the floor in the third quarter, outscoring Boyd 29-10 and ending the period on a 22-3 run to put away the Lions and set up a date with Mercer County in Sunday’s finals.

Mercy hit the backboards with a vengeance, outrebounding Boyd County 52-22, and shared the burden on offense. Taziah Jenks scored a game-high 24 points along with eight rebounds and four assists. Four Jaguars scored double figures and two posted double-doubles. Senior center Danielle Feldkamp had 15 points and 17 boards while point guard Hope Sivori scored 14 and grabbed 11 rebounds. Mercy went 11 for 22 from the three-point line.

Mercy Coach Keith Baisch built his game plan around exploiting his team’s superior size.

“(Boyd County) is outsized and we knew going in that was going to be one of our main focuses was to get the ball inside. And Danielle did a great job of that ... We always work on those second-chance points and I think we dominated in that category tonight.”

They did indeed. Mercy finished with a 19-2 advantage in second-chance points and outscored the Lions 28-14 in the paint.

“That was the difference in the ballgame,” Baisch said.

Early on in Mercy’s third-quarter blitz, Regan Berger hit back-to-back three-pointers. Paige Taylor capped the quarter with her own back-to-back triples.

“We were at shootaround today and I looked over at Coach Evans and told him ‘I think Paige Taylor could hit some threes,” said Baisch. “She came in and hit the first one, then she hit the second one and I looked at him and said ‘what did I tell you?’ Boy, what a time to step up. Those two threes were just key.”

Savannah Wheeler and Harley Paynter did their best to keep Boyd County in the game, scoring 22 points each. Paynter hit five of 11 three-point shots, but the Lions were just 8-for-32 from the perimeter as a team.

Josh Sullivan: 859-231-3225, @sullyjosh