BARBOURVILLE — All the scoring came in the first half, but most of the drama came in the second of a physical, hard-hitting showdown reminiscent of another era.
Knox Central scored on two pass plays in the first half on Friday and added a crucial two-point conversion, then kept a determined Harlan County offense out of the end zone in the second half to hang on a 15-13 win in a matchup of two southeastern Kentucky teams with district championship aspirations.
Down by two at halftime, Harlan County had the ball only twice in the second half but showed plenty of grit against a good Knox Central defense by driving deep into Panthers territory both times only to come up short on fourth down.
The Bears ran 15 plays and almost nine minutes off the clock in a drive that started after senior linebacker Rhett Alred sacked Knox Central quarterback Jaxon Hammons on third down.
Kennon Napier picked up two first downs and Quintin Mickens and Alred added one each as the Bears drove to the Knox Central 25 before a pass from Jacob Branson to Colby King, the only pass attempted by HCHS in the second half, went for no gain on fourth and five.
HCHS got the ball back when linemen Ethan Baird and Jake Casolari stopped Donovan Arthur on a fourth-and-two play near midfield.
Napier and Chase Coker each picked up first downs as the Bears drove inside the 20 before Coker was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-two play.
Harlan County elected not go give Marcus Kelly a shot at a go-ahead field goal, one from 42 yards and the other from 36.
Knox Central faced a fourth and seven with three minutes left, but the Panthers were able to convert as senior tight end Tanner Wells had a 17-yard catch to the HCHS to 25 to all but end the game. Blevin Campbell had one of several big catches in the game when he pulled in a 33-yard pass on a third-and-seven play a little earlier from the KC 21 as a couple of Harlan County defenders watched instead of making a play on the ball.
Harlan County drove 72 yards in 12 plays to open the game. Branson completed four of four passes in the drive, including a 25-yard TD pass to King, who broke several tackles along the way. Marcus Kelly’s extra point pushed the lead to 7-0 with 6:41 left in the opening quarter.
The Bears had a chance to extend the lead when Tyrese Simmons went high to pull down a well-executed onside kick by Kelly. The Bears, however, returned the favor one play later when Troy Bierman recovered a Coker fumbled that was forced by Jeremy Stewart.
Knox Central went for a fake punt after a sack by Baird pushed the Panthers back, forcing a fourth-and-17 play. Mickens dropped Bierman for no gain on the fake.
Harlan County gave the ball back again when dale Owens recovered a Mickens fumble late in the opening quarter.
The Panthers responded by going 70 yards in eight plays as Stewart found Bierman in the corner of the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass. After a procedure penalty on the Bears, Arthur went in for the two-point conversion and an 8-7 KC lead with 9:27 left in the second quarter.
Knox Central needed only one play for its next score as Campbell took a screen pass, broke a couple of tackles and raced 72 yards for a touchdown. Nick Martin’s extra point gave the Panthers a 15-7 lead with 5:17 to play in the first half.
Harlan County answered with a gutsy call of its own with a fourth-and-six play from midfield as Branson found Mickens for a 28-yard completion. Mickens added a 16-yard run later in the series after appearing to be stopped in the backfield. Napier went the final 3 yards for a touchdown. Coker was stopped short on the two-point try and the Bears trailed by two with 1:57 to play in the second quarter.
Sophomore linebacker Garry Henson had two sacks to end Knox Central’s last possession of the first half.
Harlan County (1-3) returns to action Friday at home against Johnson Central. Knox Central (2-2) will play Henry Clay.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134