Mercer Co. focuses on winning games, not winning streak
BY MIKE FIELDS
NICHOLASVILLE — Mercer County isn’t trying to go undefeated in boys’ basketball this season, but the Titans are trying to win every game.
There is a difference.
No. 1 Mercer County ran its record to 22-0 with an 83-79 victory over host West Jessamine Thursday night. The Titans trailed 74-71 with 1:20 left, but led by Trevon Faulkner, they rallied to remain the only unbeaten team in Kentucky.
Faulkner, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, had 32 points, including seven in the last 1:16.
Malik Dow, a 6-5 senior, had 17 points. Will Hager, a 6-4 senior point guard, had 16.
Mercer County made 40 of 50 free throws on the night. Faulkner hit 18 of 19 from the line.
West Jessamine’s upset bid was led by Siah Holifield’s 27 points and Isaiah Okesson’s 24.
Mercer County Coach Josh Cook says his players “don’t have time to think about the streak” because they are so focused on the task at hand. They prefer a micro view rather than a macro view of the season. That cliché of “one game at a time” resonates with this team.
“That’s definitely one of the best things that coach has done for us,” Hager said. “It’s really hard to look at season and say, ‘Oh, I want to go 30-0.’ So coach breaks it down and he’ll say, ‘Tonight we want to go 1-0,’ or ‘This week we want to go 3-0.’
“That really helps with our mindset.”
Faulkner said they treat “every game like it’s a championship game, so we just focus on that one game. We don’t think about the streak.”
That’s not to say Mercer County isn’t enjoying its time in the state spotlight.
“We’re proud of what we’re doing,” Cook said. “And we want the kids to enjoy it. I’ve told them that 98 percent of kids that play this game dream about having this kind of opportunity. They know they’re blessed to be part of this. That’s why they’re very humble and very unselfish.”
Mercer County has established itself as a solid favorite to win the 12th Region and reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000.
But It’s way too early to view the Titans as a threat to become the first undefeated state champion since Brewers in 1948. There’s a reason no team has duplicated the Redmen’s feat in 68 years. It’s not impossible, but it’s really, really difficult.
Since Brewers won the state title with a 36-0 record in ‘48, only six undefeated teams have reached the state tournament: Clay County (33-0) in 1989; Mason County (30-0) in 1982; Apollo (35-0) in 1978; Allen County (30-0) in 1962; Central City (35-0) in 1954, and Clay County (34-0) in 1953.
None of them survived to win the championship.
In recent years, several teams have had regular-season streaks comparable to Mercer County’s.
In 2013-14, Wayne County won its first 24 games before losing to Montgomery County. (The Cardinals wound up winning the 12th Region.)
In 2012-13, Holmes had a 25-0 record before losing in double-overtime to Newport Central Catholic. (The Bulldogs wound up winning the 9th Region.)
In 2011-12, Madison Central went 22-0 before falling to Henry Clay. (The Indians lost in the 11th Region finals.)
Going back almost 20 years, Lexington Catholic took a 27-0 record into its regular-season finale in 1997, but lost at defending state champ Paintsville. (The Knights lost in the 11th Region.)
Mercer County has run roughshod over most of its opponents. It’s won 17 of its games by at least 15 points. Besides last night’s escape at West Jessamine, it’s had only two other serious scares. It outlasted South Laurel 52-51 the first week of the season, and it rallied from 17 down to get by Madison Central 67-65 in the Gateway Holiday Classic at Montgomery County.
“The Madison Central game we talked at halftime about, ‘Is this a breaking point, or is this a point that defines you as a team?’,” Cook said. “I think that game helped spark what we’ve done so far. The kids believe in themselves. They don’t get rattled too often, and if they do, it’s for a short amount of time and it doesn’t stick with them.
The Titans have all the pieces of championship contender.
Hager, who has more than 1,700 points in his career, runs the show. “He’s a special kid,” Cook said. “All great teams have a floor general, and he’s ours. He directs the traffic and controls the tempo.
“He makes my job a whole lot easier.”
Hager, who averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and 17.1 as a junior, has dropped to 14.7 this season because he has more talent around him, most notably Faulkner (20.2), junior Dylan James (14.3) and Dow (12.3).
James, a transfer from Sheldon Clark, is shooting 43 percent (62 of 143 from three-point range). Dow, who transferred from Ballard before his junior year, is averaging 10.4 rebounds.
Cook, in his second year at Mercer County, gives his players most of the credit for what the Titans have accomplished this season.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I’m just a small piece of the game I love.”
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