STANFORD - Lincoln County’s quest this season has been to end a decade of disappointment and reclaim a regional title.
The Patriots’ quest is still alive after they eliminated Pulaski County 71-52 in the quarterfinals of the 12th Region Tournament Monday at Lincoln County High School.
“I told the girls before the game started, ‘This is what we worked for all year. It’s tournament time. It’s play or go home,’” Lincoln coach Cassandra McWhorter said. “We did and we get to play again.”
The Patriots, who claimed their only region title in 2001 when McWhorter played for Lincoln, will face Mercer County (27-5) in Friday’s semifinal round. Mercer edged Southwestern 49-48 in Monday’s first game.
In the night’s second game, Lincoln and Pulaski closed a tight first half deadlocked at 33-all, but there was no confusion about when or how Lincoln broke away to win.
The Patriots (22-9) simply heated up the defense in the third quarter, holding Pulaski (21-12) to 14 percent shooting from the field and forcing five turnovers as they outscored the Maroons 21-7.
“The scores tied at halftime and I told the girls, ‘It’s 0-0 — there’s nothing on the board. So you go out and you start the third quarter like the game’s just beginning, you come out and try to make a run,’” McWhorter said. “And the girls did. I was really proud of how we responded the second half, the third quarter especially.”
Emily Fox, who led Lincoln with 20 points, said the Patriots never questioned the game plan after the half,
“Coach McWhorter always tells us, if the game’s tied, that we have to play like it’s 0-0. If we wanted to keep playing, we knew we had to come out in the third quarter and start scoring,” she said.
Mariah Meeks, who led Pulaski with 20 points and seven rebounds, hit two free throws to start the second half and put the Maroons up 35-33 before Lincoln broke on its scoring surge.
Sydney Harris, who double-doubled for Lincoln with 17 points and 11 boards, jump started the third-quarter run with a jump shot at the 6:05 mark. She got eight of her total points and four of her rebounds in the run.
But it was freshman reserve Heidi Huffman leading the Patriot scoring in the breakout period, stepping behind the arc to drain three 3-point shots. Her first trey put Lincoln on top to stay 38-36 and her final, a bank shot, punctuated the Pats’ run to make it 54-40 going into the fourth quarter.
“I had to come out and do something because we were struggling, and I knew I needed to come out and step it up for my team and just play,” Huffman said. “The first one I was pretty sure was going in. The bank, I didn’t know how that went in.”
McWhorter never doubted that Huffman could produce points when Lincoln needed them.
“I told her after the last game that her ‘time is coming and, when your number is called, you step up.’ Heidi Huffman stepped up tonight,” McWhorter said.
“Heidi hits her three 3s that are huge that gives us a lift and Sydney attacks the rim. The big girl (Meeks) got in foul trouble and we brought her out on the floor and she attacked the rim and finished, and got to the free throw line and finished. And we just crashed and hounded the boards and those are all good things that win you a ballgame.”
Lincoln, which shot 40 percent from the field (23-for-57) for the night, connected on 7 of 15 shot attempts in the third and went 4-for-6 at the foul line. Pulaski, which finished at 37 percent shooting (17-for-46), connected on just two of 14 field goal attempts in the third and was 3 of 8 at the line. Lincoln was 20-for-29 at the free throw line overall while Pulaski was 15-for-28.
Pulaski had trouble finding the basket the second half, but the Maroons put up a good fight in the first half, with nine lead changes in the first and second quarters.
Brittany Warren, who had 18 points for Pulaski, and Kendra Hyden scored four straight points in the first quarter for the Maroons’ biggest lead of the game 14-10. However, Tiandra Hocker came off the Lincoln bench to score five straight points to ease the Patriots up 15-14 after one.
Lincoln wiped out the 24-22 deficit before the break, with Hocker getting two buckets, Kelsi Honaker and Rachel Spangler each getting a field goal and Fox sinking three free throws to deadlock the score at 33.
“Playing on our home floor helps us out a lot because we have home-court advantage, but we knew coming in that Pulaski County was going to be pretty tough,” Fox said. “We didn’t beat them by much (in the regular season) and we knew they were a pretty good team.”
Lincoln had four players with double figures in the win with Huffman and Hocker getting 11 points apiece. All of Lincoln’s 12 players saw action in Monday’s quarterfinal game, and nine got in the scorebooks.
McWhorter says she would like to get more of her players in games more often than she does.
“I’ve said all year that I have the luxury of being 12 deep. It’s hard to always get them in there when you want them in there, and as often as you want them in there,” she said. “I’m fortunate that I’ve got so much talent to spread but sometimes it makes it hard, too.”
Pulaski was hit with two technical fouls in the second half. Haley Warren got hit with a technical for shoving Spangler as they were each going for a loose ball and got tied up late in the third period. In the fourth quarter, Kendra Hyden was called for a technical for throwing a ball at Spangler.
Lincoln cleaned up on the boards in the win, outrebounding Pulaski 46-23. Spangler had nine rebounds for the Patriots.
12th Region Tournament
At Lincoln County
Pulaski County 14 33 40 52
Lincoln County 15 33 54 71
PULASKI (21-12) — Mariah Meeks 20, Brittany Warren 18, Haley Warren 12, Kendra Hyden 2.
LINCOLN (22-9) — Emily Fox 20, Sydney Harris 17, Rachel Spangler 5, Kourtney Belcher 2, Spencer Sims 1, Kelsi Honaker 2, Heidi Huffman 11, Tiandra Hocker 11, Cristin Hall 2.