By LARRY VAUGHT
Having Mercer County back in the state tournament is no surprise.
The Lady Titans won their first state championship last year and returned five of their top six players, including Miss Basketball candidate Seygan Robins, a University of Louisville signee.
Mercer opens tourney play with a tough first-round matchup tonight at Northern Kentucky University against Murray, one of the state’s top teams.
However, if not for some heroics from junior Toni McCombs, a transfer from Knox Central, Mercer likely would not be playing in the state tournament.
McCombs came off the bench to score a career-high 21 points in Mercer’s 67-64 win over host Lincoln County in the 12th Region Tournament semifinals. Robins had 30 points for Mercer and Lincoln County junior Emma King, a UK commit, had 32. But McCombs, who averages 6.1 points per game, was the X-factor for Mercer — and almost missed the game.
Her great aunt passed away last week and the funeral was Friday in Hopkinsville, the same day Mercer played Lincoln. McCombs missed practice Thursday and Mercer coach Chris Souder wasn’t sure if she would be at the game or not.
“It was kind of tough. We weren’t sure we could get back, but we were able to make some changes and figure some things out so I could get back for the game,” she said. “My aunt was close to my dad. It was tough for him and I wanted to be with him.”
She also knew how important the game was for Mercer. She averaged 10 points per game as a sophomore before transferring to Mercer. She’s an athletic guard who can hit a 3-point shot or drive and finish at the rim.
McCombs and her mother left the funeral early to make the three-hour drive back. McCombs said she slept about an hour in the car and got to the game about an hour before it started.
“It was kind of tough. We had a long ride back but I knew we had stuff to do, business to take care of, so I had to come and take care of it with my team,” McCombs said.
Coach Chris Souder understood McCombs’ situation. He talked to her on the phone and texted her several times Thursday and Friday. She said her teammates were a “little nervous” she was not going to make the game and were excited when she got there.
McCombs, a 47 percent shooter overall and 36 percent shooter from 3-point range, gave Mercer needed offense to thwart Mercer’s upset bid. She came back with 10 points in the 12th Region title game win over Casey County.
“It was just amazing to have the game I did against Lincoln,” McCombs said. “It was such a great feeling.”
The whole year has been amazing. Mercer is 32-3 and two of the losses came to out of state teams ranked in the top 10 nationally. It’s been a major change for McCombs considering Knox Central was a combined 16-39 in her two seasons on the team.
McCombs found out midway of her sophomore season that her family would be moving to Mercer County, a move she was against initially. She didn’t want to leave her friends and only home she had ever had.
“I was iffy about the move but I am extremely glad we did now,” McCombs said. “I didn’t want to leave but I realize now it was probably one of the best decisions I could have made. The players here were all great to me. I have finally figured out what I need to do and even learning to come off the bench rather than starting wasn’t hard because I knew how talented this team was when I got here.”
Every Mercer starter has scored over 1,200 career points. Three have signed Division I scholarships and the other two turned down Division I offers.
McCombs has a Division I offer from Eastern Kentucky. Souder expects more will be coming because of her explosive first step and scoring ability.
None of that matters to McCombs now. She watched Mercer play at last year’s state tournament. Now she will be on the court with the Titans tonight and hopes she can help them win a second state straight championship.
“It’s a high standard here,” McCombs said. “They expect to win. They play a really tough schedule. I wasn’t used to all that, but it has been so much fun. Now I can’t wait to play in the state with them.”
Souder is just as anxious for her to enjoy the state tournament experience — and also knows his team would not be playing tonight without her regional tourney heroics.
“After the (Lincoln) game he said, ‘I am so sorry for your loss and everything, but I am sure am glad you made it back.’ And so was I,” she said.
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