Strafford senior Abby Oliver stepped to the free throw line with six seconds remaining in the game and her team trailing by one point.
Oliver sunk two free throws to give Strafford a 76-75 win over Mercer County (Harrodsburg, Kentucky) in the Pink Division championship game of the 2016 Pink and White Lady Class at the O’Reilly Family Event Center on Friday.
Oliver scored 19 points and was 6-of-6 shooting free throws, including the game winner. She said she didn’t feel pressured.
“I’m thinking, ‘Just like practice, it’s going in’” Oliver said.
As a team, Strafford went 23-of-27 from the free throw line. Coach Steve Frank was glad to see Oliver go to the line with the outcome of the game in the balance.
“Free throws win big games. You have to hit your free throws. Abby hit some huge ones,” Frank said. “She’s a clutch player, a senior. She’s a great player and if I had to pick anybody, we’re going to put her on the line every time.”
Strafford 6-foot-1 sophomore Hayley Frank scored 35 points to lead all scorers. Strafford led by as many as 14 points in the first half, but Mercer County didn’t fade off into the sunset. The Titans took a 75-74 lead on a layup by Lyric Houston with 12 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
“A team like that—you know they’re going to make a run,” Steve Frank said. “Our kids showed a lot of composure. Some teams at that point when you finally relinquish that lead can really kind of fold.”
Mercer County mounted its comeback with a full court press that forced turnovers by Strafford.
“We started getting a little passive,” Frank said. “They were a lot longer than us and it was hard to throw over the top, but we should have done a little better job, probably, as soon as we caught (the ball) of attacking the sideline.”
Mercer County coach Chris Souder encouraged his team to be more aggressive on defense at halftime.
“Strafford did a great job in the first half, they really took it to us in the first half and we were back on our heels,” Souder said. “Our goal was to try to get it to the fourth quarter and get (the lead) down to six.”
Mercer County trailed by five points at the start of the fourth quarter. Louisville commit Seygan Robins scored 27 points, and Houston scored 13 of her 15 points in the second half.
“(Houston) did a better job in the second half getting under control a little bit, and that’s kind of our game — full court (pressure) and her attacking the rim,” Souder said.
Mercer County put an unfamiliarly high amount of pressure on Strafford’s guards, which Oliver said they tried to simulate in preparation for the tournament.
“Usually with the teams that we play, they don’t put very much pressure on us, so that was a big thing. In our practices a lot we scrimmage our freshman boys, and so they kind of pressure us a little bit. We were trying to get into that mode to try to break that,” Oliver said.
Strafford improves to 11-0 and now holds a 27-game winning streak that dates to a loss to Marshfield Jan. 21, 2016.
Given the success, Strafford players sport bullseyes on the backs of their warmup shirts. The stealth basketball of last season is gone for the defending Class 3 state champions.
“We tried to always be the underdog and stay as quiet as we could,” Frank said. “Well, that’s over now.”
Oliver said Strafford treated the Pink Division championship with Mercer County in high regard.
“It honestly felt like a state championship game,” Oliver said.
Frank noticed something different in the locker room before the game.
“When I walked in and the way they were stretching and the way that their mental approach was, it reminded me of last year when we got ready to go out and play for the championship. I knew that they were ready and I knew that they were focused,” Frank said.
Mercer County, the No. 1-ranked team in Kentucky according to BluegrassPreps.com, didn’t win a championship, but Souder said the Titans accomplished the prime objective of their trip to Springfield: face good, unfamiliar competition in preparation for the Kentucky playoffs in March.
“Everybody has been great here. It’s been hospitable, everybody is very friendly—a very well run tournament, so it’s a great experience for us,” Souder said.
Strafford 76, Mercer County (Harrodsburg, Kentucky) 75
Mercer County 15-16-26-18—75
Strafford 21-15 END 1Q, 43-31 HALF, 62-57 END 3Q
Strafford—Hayley Frank 35, Abby Oliver 19, Kayley Frank 9, Zoey Mullings 6, Kyndall Compton 3, Logan Jones 2, Mica Chadwell 2
Mercer County—Seygan Robins 27, Lyric Houston 15, Emmy Souder 10, Emma Davis 9, Lexy Lake 6, Faith Lake 5, Channing Lewis 3.