Rachel Spangler had 14 points and the reserves scored 15 points with seven rebounds for the Patriots (24-9), who go into this week’s Sweet Sixteen in Bowling Green on a seven-game winning streak. Lincoln will play Clay County (31-5) in the first round Thursday at 9 .m. Clay beat Harlan County 41-37 in the 13th Region final Sunday.
“We all worked hard and we knew we all had to show up and play,” Spangler said.
Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter knew she could count on every player.
“Everybody has stepped up this year when it’s their turn,” she said. “That’s why I’ve said all year, we’re 12 deep. I’ve got a bench full over there and it’s a bonus, and I think that helped us tonight.”
One of the biggest buckets came from freshman Heidi Huffman. Having just had a shot blocked, Huffman got the ball back in the final seconds of the first half and drilled a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Lincoln a 24-15 halftime lead.
“I knew the play was going to be run for me. After I got basically stuffed, I figured just shoot it,” she said. “It gave us a lot of momentum.”
The Patriots closed out the first half on an 8-2 run over the final 4:11 while starters Fox, Harris and Ciara Saylor sat on the bench with two fouls each. After Fox hit two free throws to make it 18-13, she left the game. Lincoln then got a bucket and free throw from Spangler and forced two Casey turnovers before Huffman’s big trey.
“We just had to keep playing hard and make sure nobody let up,” Spangler said. “We had to play good defense, and we know what we’re capable of, so we just had to work hard.”
Casey coach Randy Salyers knew his Rebels (19-15) blew a great opportunity to cut into the Patriots’ lead with their starters on the bench.
“We didn’t take advantage of that. And the big 3 they had before halftime was big,” he said. “If we go into halftime down six instead of nine, it’s a whole different story.”
Instead, Lincoln began to pull away in the third quarter.
Spangler opened the third quarter with a three-point play and Saylor hit a free throw to make it 28-15. Two straight putbacks from Belcher put Lincoln up 32-17, and Chansler Gilbert’s 3-pointer gave Lincoln its largest lead at 39-23 with 1:52 left in the quarter.
“We come out after halftime and we run a set play (for Spangler) and we execute. We get a shot that gives us a little bit more cushion. There wasn’t as much pressure and I felt the girls relaxed after that point,” McWhorter said.
Casey, which played no seniors after Megan Pittman was injured in mid-January, had its youth show as the game wore on.
“We just made a lot of unforced errors and that comes form playing freshmen and sophomores. I told the kids, I can live with the effort and I can live with the mistakes as long as I had that effort. And I did, and that’s all I can ask for.”
Casey finished 15 of 38 from the floor, going 4-for-17 from 3-point range, and made 13 of 19 free throws with 14 turnovers.
A 3-pointer from Fox made it 42-29 after three quarters. But the Rebels stayed in the game thanks to Jasmine Johnson. The junior guard, who played on Casey’s state semifinal team in 2009, scored a game-high 25 points. Her 3-pointer and two free throws made it 42-34 with 6:32 to go.
“Jasmine’s been a starter since her freshman year, and we just ask her to do so much and she keeps giving and giving and giving,” Salyers said. “I couldn’t ask any more from Jasmine Johnson.”
Casey got the ball back down eight, but turned it over. From there, Huffman hit two free throws and Spencer Sims converted a three-point play to stretch the lead to 47-34 with 5:45 to go. Casey never got closer than nine the rest of the way.
McWhorter liked the patience her team showed down the stretch.