Host Lincoln will try to win its second regional championship when it faces Wayne County today in the regional final.
To earn their title shot, the Patriots (23-9) had to avenge a loss to Mercer, which had beaten them less than a month earlier.
They did so by holding off a furious charge from the Titans, who trailed by 18 points early in the second half but battled back to tie the game with just over a minute remaining.
That’s when Gilbert stepped up with what she called the biggest shot of her basketball life, a jumper from the left corner that put Lincoln in front for good.
“They got the ball in the middle to Kourtney (Belcher), and I spotted up waiting for the ball and she saw me, and I just shot the ball,” Gilbert said. “I felt pretty good once I let it go.”
It was one of only two baskets in the game for Gilbert. Emily Fox led Lincoln with 16 points and eight rebounds and Ciara Saylor added 10 points and seven boards, and it was Saylor who finished off Mercer rebounding the Titans’ final missed shot and hitting two free throws with less than a second left.
The Titans got a shot to tie or take the lead when they got the ball after a Lincoln miss with 24 seconds left, but Tabby Shewmaker’s 3-point attempt missed the mark.
Mercer coach Chris Souder said it was a bitter defeat for the Titans (27-5), a senior-dominated team with the highest win total in the region.
“It’s a real tough loss,” Souder said. “We had a shot there at the end, a good open look by Tabby who had been shooting the ball pretty well. But the fact that our kids battled back after getting down 18 points really shows what they’re made of. I have been all year, and I’m just real proud of my kids.”
McWhorter said it was just the sort of comeback she expected from Mercer.
“Mercer made a great run, and I knew they were going to,” the Lincoln coach said. “They’re too good of a team and he’s too good of a coach for them not to make the run that they did. I’m just proud of our girls, how they had a gut-check and stuck it out and finished the game.”
Mercer entered the game with the longest winning streak of any girls team in the region, a 16-game run that included a 49-45 victory over Lincoln on Feb. 3 in Harrodsburg.
This game was just as close until Lincoln took control by reeling off 12 straight points in just over 4 1/2 minutes in the second quarter to take a 29-15 lead.
“We were able to move the ball and execute and just knock down shots,” McWhorter said.
Mercer, which shot 37.9 percent from the field while Lincoln shot 30.3 percent, was 2 for 10 in the second quarter before Carli Souder broke the drought by driving for a layup 3 seconds before halftime.
Lincoln also controlled the boards, outrebounding Mercer 26-11 in the first half and 43-15 overall.
The Patriots picked up where they left off at the start of the second half, as Sydney Harris and Saylor opened the third quarter with back-to-back 3-pointers to take a 35-17 lead.
Mercer still trailed 42-28 midway through the third period, then outscored the Patriots 8-1 to pull within 45-41. Catheryne Claunch scored four points during that burst and 11 of her game-high 18 in the third quarter.
“Catheryne just seemed to take over in the third quarter and got us back in the ballgame,” Souder said.
Claunch fouled out early in the fourth quarter, however, and Lincoln soon pushed its lead back to seven points.
But Mercer was not finished. While Lincoln went scoreless for nearly 4 minutes, the Titans used a three-point play from Dedman and a putback by Taylor Readnower to pull within 48-46 with 3:27 to play.
And after Belcher hit one of two free throws for Lincoln, Savannah Taylor hit two free throws and Shewmaker hit one of two, tying the game for the first time since early in the second quarter at 49-all with 1:14 left.