By MICHAEL CHILDERS, CJ Correspondent
Less than two weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, Southwestern destroyed Mercer County by 27 points in a lopsided, 84-57 victory at the Wigwam in the Warriors’ regular season finale.
In last night’s opening round game of the 12th Region Boys Basketball Tournament at Lincoln County High School, it was the Mercer County Titans stunning the defending regional champion Warriors, in overtime, by a final tally of 56-54.
The heartbreaking loss ended the Warriors’ season and a chance to make it back to Rupp Arena for the second consecutive year. Mercer County, with the victory, advanced to Friday evening’s semifinal round, where they will meet up with Somerset.
Unfortunately for Southwestern, a win just wasn’t in the cards.
“I don’t think we came into the game overconfident, but we didn’t seem like ourselves in the early part of the game,” began head coach Steve Wright. “I think once we got into the game and weren’t playing well, I think it bothered us. You’ve got to win with class and lose with class - we got beat and didn’t deserve to win.”
With 1:43 left in regulation, Mercer County jumped out to a 47-45 lead over the Warriors with a three-point from Blake Pennington, which was his fourth trey of the half. Isaiah Collier got his first basket of the night with 1:30 left in the fourth period, tying the ballgame up at 47 apiece.
The score would remain the same until 1.9 seconds left in the frame, when Collier made a lay-up to put Southwestern out front by two points at 49-47. The buzzer did go off and Southwestern celebrated, but the refs would put just under two seconds up on the scoreboard.
Mercer County would throw the ball in to half court, where they would take a timeout with 1.3 seconds left to play. Out of the timeout, Pennington was fouled with 0.5 seconds left on the clock. Pennington would sink both free-throws to tie the ballgame up at 49-49, meaning an extra session would be needed to settle a winner.
Regarding the clock situation at the end of regulation, the second-year Warrior hoops coach said after the game that his team should have never been in that situation.
“It looked like we won the game there, but they put time back on the clock, then we got a foul call,” Wright stated. “Everybody is going to talk about the call at the end of the game, but it looked like he fouled him. The guy made the call and there’s nothing you can do about it. The game didn’t come down to that, because we should have been up.”
Pennington and the Titans would draw first blood in overtime, as he made a lay-up to give his team a 51-49 advantage with 2:31 remaining. David Kapinga, with 2:06 left on the clock, snuck past the Mercer County defense for a lay-up to tie the contest back up at 51-51.
John Ingram sunk a pair of free-throws with 1:23 left in overtime to give the Titans a 53-51 advantage. Following a Southwestern turnover, Russell Sims tallied a pair of free-throws at the charity stripe with 21 seconds left to give Mercer County a four-point cushion.
With 13 seconds left in the extra session, Kapinga knocked down a three-pointer from way downtown to cut the Titan lead to a lone point at 55-54. Will Hager went one-of-two from the charity stripe to put Mercer County ahead, 56-54.
Southwestern would get a last-second shot attempt from sophomore Adam Isaacs, but it would rattle out as the buzzer sounded. When the clock hit double zero, it was Mercer County sending the defending regional champion home for the season.
“After the practice we had on Sunday, I thought we would be ready to play, but we didn’t play very well,” said Wright. “We just didn’t execute tonight. I didn’t think we played real well offensively - it was probably the worst we’ve played offensively all year.”
What made things difficult for Southwestern to stay out front was the hot shooting of the Titans, who hit ten treys in the win. Southwestern, meanwhile, hit five three-pointers in the loss.
“You’ve got to give (Mercer County) a lot of credit,” told Wright. “They shot well from behind the three-point line - they made ten three’s. We got outplayed tonight. We didn’t play well enough to win tonight and they did.”
The Titans were led in scoring by Hager, who finished with a club-high 17 points. Pennington chimed in with 16 points for Mercer County, which all came after the intermission. Ingram was the third Titan player to hit double figures, scoring 12 points.
Junior Justin Edwards paved the way for Southwestern, leading all scorers with 21 points. Kapinga was the only other player to hit double digits, as he tallied 13 points.
Southwestern finishes the season out as 48th District champions for the third straight year and had an overall record of 22-9.
Tourney action will continue Friday night at Lincoln County High School, as a quartet of teams will battle it out for the coveted 12th Region title, along with a trip to Rupp Arena. Wayne County and West Jessamine will hoop it up at 6 p.m., while Mercer County and Somerset will go head-to-head in the nightcap, which is set to get underway at 7:30 p.m.
The championship game of the tournament will held on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln County High School.
MC - 13 13 10 13 7 - 56
SW - 10 16 12 11 5 - 54
MERCER COUNTY (17-13): Hager 17, Pennington 16, Ingram 12, Sims 8, Duncan 3.
SOUTHWESTERN (22-9): Edwards 21, Kapinga 13, Isaacs 9, Schulz 5, Collier 4, Gaskin 2.