STANFORD — They might have hit a bump in the road late in the season, but the Lincoln County girls are still confident they have what it takes to win their first 12th Region title in 11 years.
Lincoln won its first 10 games against 12th region opponents, but the Patriots lost to Mercer County on Feb. 3 and then Danville beat them by 19 points a week later.
They righted the ship by winning their final two games, however, and are 19-9 heading into this week’s 45th District Tournament.
“That’s always been our goal to win the region. It’s always in our mind that anybody can win on any given night, like at Mercer County,” junior Sydney Harris said. “But that’s OK. We just keep pushing through it.”
Now the question is, are they as confident as they were earlier in the season?
“We still come in and work every day, but our confidence is very important to us and we are very confident going into it,” junior Kourtney Belcher said.
This is a Lincoln team with no seniors, but plenty of experience. The Patriots start four juniors — Harris, Belcher, Emily Fox and Ciara Saylor — along with sophomore Rachel Spangler. Junior Chansler Gilbert comes off the bench for even more experience, and the Patriots can go nine or 10 deep.
None of the players said being a senior-less team is a disadvantage heading into the postseason,
“I think over the season we’ve grown a lot and last year we got a lot of experience as well,” Fox said. “We may be lacking a little bit of leadership, but I think we all step up.”
Belcher said Lincoln has plenty of experience, seniors or not.
“Experience is just ballgames. Seniority is very important, but we have the experience,” she said. “Emily and Sydney have been varsity since eighth grade and me and Ciara have come in and I think the experience is there.”
“I don’t think it’s that big of an effect on us because weve been playing together so long. We know each other like the back of our hand,” she said. “We just have to keep working together and trusting each other and playing as a team.”
Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter believes her team has the experience and talent win.
“They’ve been through the battles going back to their middle school days. They know what it takes to win championships, it’s at a different level now, but when it’s all said and done it’s still just the game of basketball,” McWhorter said. “And I think they play well enough with one another that if we just come out and worry about us and focus in on us, we’ll be fine.”
Lincoln was the preseason pick by the region’s coaches to make it to Bowling Green, so the Patriots have been used to having the target on their back all season.
“We always know people are going to play their best games against us, and we have to be ready every day,” said Fox, who has started since her first game as a freshman. “We kind of like it, it’s a challenge, We just have to be mentally focused before evey game.”
Harris admits it’s hard not to think about winning a regional title, but the Pats have done a good job staying focused.
“It’s something thats always in the back of our mind, that’s what we’ve worked for all year and it’s what we continue to work for,” she said.
And with everyone coming back next season, doesn’t the thought of winning two straight titles creep into their heads as well?
Of course, Fox said, but doesn’t want her team to get ahead of itself.
“We do think about that, but we’ve got to just take it one game at a time,” she said.
Lincoln last won the region in 2001, McWhorter’s senior season. Saylor said the coaches talk about winning the region to motivate this team to do the same.
“They talk about how they want to see us do what they did. It gives us more of a drive to do what they did, and go farther,” Saylor said. “And that’s what they want too. for us to go farther than they did.”
McWhorter said it’s hard not to compare this team with hers, especially with the expectations heaped upon them.
“This team is very talented, and I think people know that and kind of have expected them to do well since they were in middle school and were looking forward to getting them to be juniors and next year seniors,” she sad. “I just look forward to them playing together and doing what they need to do to help us with our chances to win region.”
The girls district and regional tournaments will be played on the Patriots’ home floor, which Fox said is in their favor.
“I think it’s a big advantage because we always love playing on our home court and we always have a lot of fans,” she said.
Harris said just the familiarity with the gym is a big help.
“I love playing on our home floor,” she said. “I do feel we have an advantage because we know the floor and we know the rims and how they bounce.”
This group of juniors is no stranger to state tournament experience however. They went 69-1 from sixth through eighth grades, making it to the middle school state tournament semifinals. There, they lost to a Lebanon team which included current Marion County stars Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers.
“It’s still in our gut,” Belcher said. It’s still a feeling that’s in our gut and we use it every day saying that we have to keep playing.”