After having their hearts broken in back-to-back 12th region championship games, the Lady Titans have reclaimed their rightful spot atop the 12th region. Mercer County (21-13) avenged their loss to (30-3) Danville from earlier in the season, beating the Lady Ads in a overtime thriller, 63-59, in the 12th region championship game, handing Danville only their third loss of the entire season.
Mercer County is headed to Rupp Arena to represent the 12th region in the Mingua Beef Jerky Girl’s Sweet 16 tournament. However, the road to Rupp has been anything but smooth for the Lady Titans. At the halfway point in the season, Mercer’s record sat at 6-10, the absence of team leader Timberlynn Yeast was apparent as the team struggled to adjust to playing without one of the best players in the state.
A casual glance at the 6-10 record did not imply the eventual success the Lady Titans would achieve. Many of the before-mentioned losses came to top-tier programs in West Virginia, Tennessee and two squads (Mercy and Bethlehem) that will also be representing their respective regions in the state tournament.
Mercer reaped the fruits of their labor in the second half of the season, the stiff competition helped shape this team into the best version of themselves. The Lady Titans never showed signs of discouragement and as a testament of their resiliency finished the latter part of the season with a 15-3 record including winning the 46th district for the 15th straight season and removing the proverbial monkey off their backs by defeating Southwestern in the regional semifinals. Most local media outlets favored Danville heading into the 12th Region championship game this past Sunday. As winners of 11 straight games who had not suffered a loss since January, it’s safe to say Danville was playing at the top of their game and expected to win. The first meeting between the Lady Titans and the Lady Ads saw Danville come out on top with a narrow 49-48 victory over Mercer. With both team’s seasons on the line and so much at stake, the rematch had all the makings of a classic. And that it was.
The Lady Titans may have been the underdogs in the 12th Region championship game, but it was unbeknownst to them. Junior Anna Drakeford began the most important game of the season the same way she has so many before it, getting her team on the scoreboard first with her signature fast-break floater from just inside the free-throw line.
The one, two punch backcourt combination of Drakeford and freshman Teigh Yeast has been a strength for the Lady Titans all year, apparent by Yeast following up Drakeford with a fast break score of her own that put Mercer ahead 4-0 early in the contest. Drakeford scored again at the rim, capping off a six-straight-point run at the 6:35 mark of the first quarter, forcing Danville to burn an early time-out.
The Lady Ads quickly evened the score via back-to-back 3-pointers from Samantha Bottom and took their first lead at the midway point of the first quarter thanks to Desiree Tandy’s first basket of the night.
Alayah Quisenberry knifed into the lane for her first basket, growing Danville’s lead to 10-6. At the end of the first period, the Lady Ads held a slim 16-14 lead over Mercer.
The rich tradition of Danville’s football program possibly influenced Tandy’s first basketball of the second quarter, as she secured the ball tightly underneath her arm and drove past the Lady Titans’ defense on her way to the rim, extending Danville’s lead 18-14. Senior Lindsay Jessie brought the Lady Titans back within two points after nailing a pair of free throws with seven minutes remaining in the first half.
Despite a blazing hot first-half shooting performance by Bottom, neither team managed to fully take control of the contest by the halftime buzzer. Danville held a 30-27 lead heading into the locker rooms.
To begin the second half Head Coach Hayley Spivey switched her team to a zone defense, a decision she was very hesitant to make. Spivey later said in a postgame interview
“Running zone is unlike me, staying in a zone is very unlike me. Everything in me was saying go back to our man to man defense, but thankfully I listen to my assistant coaches and we stayed in the zone,” she said.
Mercer’s zone defense limited Danville’s athletes from penetrating to the rim. The Lady Ads began to find the majority of their offensive output from jump shots but were working much harder for their points. Meanwhile, Drakeford and Yeast led the charge for the Lady Titans in the third quarter, working their way around the Lady Ad defenders.
The teams remained deadlocked at 42-42 in the final minute of the third quarter. Danville scored on an offensive rebound putback with only 25 seconds remaining in the third period that gave them the 44-42 advantage heading into the final quarter.
As the two teams broke their huddles and headed onto the floor for the final quarter of play the tension was palpable. Junior Sara Dunn said “we expected to win,” and the Lady Titans were about to have their chance. Yeast set the sequence in motion by hitting two free throws, tying the game at 44-44 early in the fourth quarter. Dunn sent all of Mercer’s bench leaping into the air, pumping their fists with excitement. After nailing a crucial 3-pointer, giving Mercer the 47-44 lead with 6:15 remaining in regulation.
Momentum started to favor the Lady Titans when junior Peyton Boyd extended Mercer’s lead to 49-44. In response, Mays showed why she earned the honor of 12th region coaches pick player of the year, by knocking down a contested 3-pointer that trimmed Mercer’s lead back down to two, 49-47. Tandy completely swung the momentum back in favor of Danville by scoring on a beautiful post-spin move while being fouled. She converted on the free throw attempt and reclaimed the lead for the Lady Ads 50-49 with 2:50 remaining in the game.
Jessie finished with 16 points, but her layup at the 1:40 mark may have been her most important basket. Yeast converted on four of her next five free throws, extending Mercer’s lead to 55-52 with 50 seconds remaining in regulation. The Lady Titans had a chance to salt away the game at the end of regulation but failed to convert on the late free throw attempt. The miss left the door cracked for Danville to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer.
With only 11 seconds left in the contest, legendary head coach Judy Mason called her final time-out to draw a play to potentially send the 12th region championship game into overtime. The Lady Ads struggled to find a decent look as the clock bled away. Finally, Mays popped to the wing and fired over two Mercer defenders. On a Sunday afternoon, the bank was open for the 12th region player of the year. Her shot went off the glass and through the rim. Reviving all life within the Lady Ads squad.
Mays matched her last second shot by hitting another 3-pointer to kick off the overtime period. Mercer clearly flustered by the miracle shot at the buzzer and hot overtime start by Danville, Yeast responded with a layup that brought the score to 58-57 in favor of Danville. As time began to expire in overtime while nursing a one-point lead the Lady Ads attempted to play keep away. Drakeford made Danville pay for their tactics, stealing an arid pass, and going the length of the floor for a layup, putting Mercer back on top 59-58 with 30 seconds remaining in overtime.
After Drakeford’s layup the game clock continued to run, Tandy quickly grabbed the ball out of the net and in bounded it to Mays with a strong sense of urgency. Mays needed only three dribbles to drive the entire length of the floor for a layup attempt. Mercer’s defense was late to slide into a legal guarding position and fouled Mays on her shot attempt. With pressure at its absolute highest, Mays’ first attempt was no good hitting the back rim. Her second effort did not touch the rim, swishing through the net and tying the game at 59-59 with 25 seconds remaining.
Yeast took the in bounds pass and used only four seconds to drive all the way to the rim, her game-winning layup attempt was no good, however, a foul call sent Yeast to the free throw line for a chance to give Mercer the lead. In a position that would strike fear into most freshmen, Yeast calmly stepped up to the line and sank both free throws. Mercer took a 61-59 lead.
With 21 seconds remaining, Danville had one last chance to tie or win the game. Mays dribbled into the front court and used a screen to try and get to the basket, but the Mercer defense cut her off. Mays went baseline and was forced to swing the ball to the opposite wing. The Lady Ads frantically looked for an open shooter, and with seven seconds remaining Danville fired away from 3-point range. The potential game-winning shot hit the left rim and bounced between junior Jersey McGinnis and a Lady Admiral. All three players fought for possession, forcing the official to signal jump ball. The alternating arrow favored Mercer.
With only two seconds left in overtime, Danville was forced to foul. The Lady Titans turned to Yeast again for the game-clinching free throws, and she delivered. Giving Mercer an insurmountable four-point cushion. Mays threw up one last heave from the half court but it was only a formality as the Lady Titans held on for a historic 63-59 victory.
“At the beginning of the season, we set our goals for this team and our season and it was that we win a 12th region tournament and that goal did not change after we lost Timberlynn. We started the season 4-10 and I don’t think anyone but my players and coaching staff knew that we had what it would take to accomplish our goals. We turned it around and finished the second half of the season 17-3. Our girls fought through adversity and overcame all the obstacles. I am extremely proud of the heart and fight this team showed this season. They deserve the credit for turning this season around. It truly is a blessing to coach this team and to be a part of the journey that this team has been on. We look forward to representing the 12th region in the state tournament,” said Spivey.
Mercer’s bumpy and unconventional road led them to victory in the 12th region championship game. This Lady Titans team never lost its vision despite many painful setbacks.
Mercer was scheduled to play George Rogers Clark in the first round of the girl’s sweet 16 tournament Wednesday, March 8 at 6 p.m. The game happened after press time, but be sure to check out next week’s the Harrodsburg Herald for coverage of Mercer’s run at the KHSAA Sweet 16.