Heading into Monday’s semi final showdown in the Boy’s 12th Regional Basketball Tournament at Pulaski County High School, Southwestern and Lincoln County had been two of the hottest teams inside the region over the past couple of months.
Lincoln County brought an 18-game winning streak into last night’s contest, while the Warriors had won 14 of their last 16 games.
Something had to give last night and give it did — although not until the waning seconds of the game.
Southwestern’s Justin Edwards poured in a game-high 29 points, while Danny Butt got an all-important rebound and threw an outlet pass to a streaking Hunter Cromer for the final score of the night.
As a result, it was Southwestern punching its ticket to the 12th Regional Tournament’s title game for the third time in four years, with a hard-fought and heart-pounding, 66-60 win last night over the Patriots.
“When you’re playing a good team now-a-days due to the three point line, it’s just so hard to guard a player like (Timmy Taylor) off the dribble — you’re picking your poison all the time,” stated a very happy coach Steve Wright in the Warriors locker room after the game.
“We felt like (Timmy) Taylor is the head of the monster when he drives — he sets everybody up, he gets in the lane, and he makes the whole team play,” continued the Southwestern coach. “We wanted to try to lock in on him.”
While Southwestern’s game plan was to try to slow Taylor down, the rest of the Pats picked up the slack in the first half of play.
After the Warriors raced out to a quick 8-0 lead, Lincoln County fought back to take its first lead of the night early in the second quarter.
And, the Pats did it due to some prolific shooting from downtown.
Lincoln County’s first eight field goals of the night came from behind the three-point arc, and when Jacob Conway drained a triple early in the second quarter, the Pats had a 19-18 lead over the Warriors.
However, Southwestern — as was the case all night long — came right back with an emphatic answer at the other end of the floor.
Edwards scored 11 of his 29 points in the opening half, while Butt gave Southwestern some valuable minutes off the pine, scoring all seven of his points in the first half as well.
Hunter Cromer also scored seven points in the opening half of play — a half that saw the Warriors go in with a 32-28 advantage over the Patriots.
“We were able to play four or five defenses tonight, and I thought we played every one of them pretty good,” stated Wright.
“We were able to go man when they hit the three’s, and I’m really proud of our kids,” Wright added.
Leading the Patriots by that 32-28 margin at the break, Southwestern stretched its lead out to as many as eight points in the third frame, but Lincoln County refused to go away.
And it was Taylor leading the charge back for his club.
The Lincoln County point guard tallied eight of his club’s 12 points in the quarter, but Edwards countered those buckets, as he tallied eight of his team’s 13 points in the frame.
Still, it was a Taylor driving layup just before the horn sounded ending the third stanza that brought the Pats back to within five points of the Warriors, at 45-40 headed into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth period, Taylor’s teammate — Jacob Conway — who led his club on the night with 18 points — converted a three-point play that knotted the score up for the first time of the second half at 57-57 with 2:41 left in the game.
But, the Warriors would come right back with an answer of their own.
An Edwards three-point play on Southwestern’s next trip downcourt gave the Warriors a 60-57 lead with 1:52 remaining in the contest.
Lincoln County’s Neil Conley — who hit a game-high five three’s on the night for the Pats — drained his final trey of the contest, tying the score up for the final time at 60-60 with 1:09 left.
After Edwards made one of two from the charity stripe, a Conway drive to the hole was no good, Butt rebounded the ball, and Edwards would score his final basket of the night for a 63-30 Southwestern lead.
After another Conway miss, Dylan Gaskin was fouled, made one of two from the free throw stripe, easing the Southwestern lead out to 64-60.
After another Lincoln County miss, Butt rebounded the ball, and threw it ahead to a wide open Cromer for an uncontested layup, and the celebration was on, as Southwestern was headed back to the regional title game for the third time in the past four seasons, with the 66-60 victory.
“We just have a crazy mix of kids,” pointed out Wright. “We’ve got a team of seniors, along with some kids that are still in middle school.”
“In October when we started practice, I could sense a real unity out of these kids,” remarked the Warrior coach. “There was a real sense of unity, and energy turns into synergy when people pull together. Even in January when weren’t playing all that well, we would come back the day after a game and have a real good practice — you could just see things starting to build. I really think some of the things we worked on early in the season are starting to pay off for us now.”
Tomorrow night, the Warriors will go for their second regional crown in the past three years, but a very familiar nemesis is standing in the way.
With Wayne County’s 73-61 win in last night’s second semi final game over Boyle County, the Cards and the Warriors will hook up for the fourth time this season.
Wayne County — 30-1 on the season — knocked off Southwestern — 25-5 on the year — in the title game of the 48th District a little over a week ago by a final count of 76-66.
The Cards have defeated Southwestern in all three games they have faced each other this year, but the only one that matters is tonight’s game, with a trip to Rupp Arena and next week’s Boy’s Sweet 16 Tournament on the line.
Tonight’s championship game between the Warriors and Cardinals will tip off from Pulaski County High School at 7 p.m.
LC — 13 15 12 20 — 60
SW — 18 14 13 21 — 66
Lincoln Co. — Conway 18, Conley 15, Taylor 11, Cornelius 10, Pittman 6.
Southwestern — Edwards 29, Gaskin 12, Cromer 9, Butt 7, Isaacs 7, Fitzgerald 2.