HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — Jordan Brock kept her promise, concluding her high school career at the place she wanted, sharing a hug with coach Derrick Akal in the closing seconds as Harlan was overpowered by a bigger, deeper and more athletic George Rogers Clark squad 81-63 on Wednesday in the final game of the first day of play at the girls state tournament at Northern Kentucky University.
“I told you all I’d be back,” said Brock, a senior guard. “I’m satisfied with how my team came together after all those injuries (including a shoulder injury to standout senior forward Emma Bianchi and a leg injury to freshman forward Natalee King). I think we proved everyone wrong. I didn’t get the outcome I wanted tonight, but I want to thank all my teammates. We stayed in the fight and never gave up.”
It was also the final game for Akal after seven years with the Lady Dragons. Akal coached both the boys and girls teams at Harlan this season but said last summer when he took over the boys program that he would only stay one more year with the Lady Dragons, leaving with his all-state point guard. With four straight trips to the 13th Region Tournament finals, capped by back-to-back regional titles, Brock and Akal ended their run at Harlan as the most successful player-coach combination in the 43-year history of girls basketball in Harlan County.
“I told them a few minutes ago that I’ve learned a lot from this basketball team,” Akal said. “For me it’s been satisfying to watch these kids compete. We have 221 kids in our school and to be in this tournament is a testament to these girls, our school and our district.”
Akal admitted it would be tough to walk away from the girls program.
“I’m a little hurt, but I’m also happy about what they have accomplished,” he said. “I’ve ran my race.”
Brock poured in 38 points for the Lady Dragons and junior forward Mackenzie King added 16 as Harlan’s only two returning starters accounted for all but nine of their team’s points.
“Jordan Brock’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever coached against,” George Rogers Clark coach Robbie Graham said. “She hit some incredible shots and is very tough to guard because she’s so relaxed. We tried to run two at her and make her give it up, but she’s so crafty and wouldn’t give it up. She was splitting our traps and sometimes splitting three.”
Graham said the Lady Cardinals were able to beat Harlan with superior numbers.
“I felt our team against her was a good situation for us,” he said. “We had four girls in double figures and we rotated people on her. I felt we needed to dominate the glass, and we did. I think she got tired, especially in the fourth quarter. We knew she would make shots, but we wanted to make her take tough ones.”
Harlan (27-9) was also an underdog last week in the 13th Region Tournament against South Laurel and Harlan County, teams that were also bigger, deeper and more talented than the Lady Dragons, but Harlan found a way to upset both and avenge four of their earlier losses.
The Lady Dragons looked like they were in position early for another upset on Wednesday as Brock hit four 3-pointers in the first quarter to help the Lady Dragons build a 20-13 lead.
Clark eventually found a way to slow down Brock, then began to pound away at the Lady Dragons on the boards and by getting the ball inside and drawing fouls.
“We wanted to keep them out of transition and rebound better,” Akal said. “I thought we executed our game plan for the most part, but we were outrebounded 35-20 and they hit 29 free throws and we only hit four. You’re not going to overcome 29 makes at the line to four.”
George Rogers Clark (30-4), champions of the 10th Region, overwhelmed the Lady Dragons with their size and balance. Junior guard Shemaya Beehan was one of four Lady Cardinals in double figured with 25 points and nine rebounds. Maleaha Bell, Hayley Harrison and Jasmine Flowers added 16 points each.
Led by six straight points from Behanan, Clark pulled ahead in the second quarter with a 12-0 run to start the period. The lead grew to five before baskets by Brock and King cut the deficit to 32-31 at halftime.
Harlan had only one basket in the first six minutes of the third quarter as Clark’s lead grew to 51-39 by the end of the period.
Five straight points by Brock and a 3-pointer by Noah Canady pulled Harlan within six before Behanan and Harrison sparked an 11-2 run that put the game out of reach. Clark stretched its lead to as many as 19 points in the final minute.
George Rogers advances to Friday’s quarterfinals against 12th Region champ Mercer County.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134