MANCHESTER — Harlan County coach Debbie Green had heard the same comments through much of the preseason whenever anyone asked about her Lady Bears’ season-opening game at Clay County.
The Lady Tigers are unusually small and unusually inexperienced, everyone said. None of those assurances helped her sleep any better in the days leading up to the game Monday.
“It’s still Clay County at Clay County,” said Green, who was able to smile about the comments from friends and fans after the Lady Bears had finished off an unusually easy 54-32 win over Clay County, the most successful program in the region with 18 trips to the state tournament since girls basketball was reinstated in the 1974-75 season. “I don’t care how inexperienced they are because they have tradition and those girls know how to play.”
With Louisville coach Jeff Walz watching her from the stands, sophomore guard Blair Green led the Lady Bears 19 points. Sophomore guard Rebecca Middleton added 10 points.
The Lady Tigers were limited to 20 percent (five of 25) shooting in the first half as Harlan County started a 19-0 run late in the first quarter to build a lead that Clay could never cut below 11 despite an improved performance in the second half.
“I thought we did a good job on the boards and getting a hand in their face,” Green said. “We limited them to one shot, and that was a key. We knew they had shooters.”
All but three of Clay’s points came from their two returning starters as eighth-grade guard Kaylee Mathis scored 16 points and senior guard Kelli Roberts added 13.
“Roberts has been out with a knee injury, and she just got back. She has to be able create something for the other kids to have to help off for our kids to get their shots off,” Clay County coach James Burchell said. “Green did a good job on her, but she’s not in shape yet. I thought we played pretty solid the second half. That will happen with this team, we’ll have a good game and then a bad game. If we shoot it well, we’re not that bad. If Roberts is a factor with the ball, we’re a lot better. Other kids have to play through her.”
Both teams struggled to score early as Middleton’s basket with 4:17 left in the first quarter was the first of the game. With the score tied at 6-6, Harlan County started its decisive 19-0 run with a basket by freshman point guard Phebe McHargue. A 3-pointer by Green and jumper by Reanna Middleton pushed the Lady Bears’ lead to 13-6 at the end of the period.
“We jumped on them pretty quick, and I think that was a key,” Green said. “We were able to pressure them because they are so young, but they will grow up and be pretty good.”
Reanna Middleton started the second quarter with a 3-pointer as HCHS reeled off the first 12 points of the period. Kaylea Gross added a three-point play by Rebecca Middleton, Green and Breann Turner added baskets as the lead grew to 25-6 before Roberts finally ended an eight-minute drought with a basket.
With Clay trailing by 21 early in the third quarter, Mathis began to heat up with eight straight point. Rebecca Middleton and McHargue answered to slow Clay’s run as the Lady Bears led 39-25 going into the fourth quarter.
“We got a little tired and a little lax. We can’t do that,” Green said
A 3-pointy by Roberts to open the final period got Clay within 11, but Rebecca Middleton responded with her second 3-pointer to start a 15-4 run to end the game. Leah Evans and Hannah Gaw had baskets off the bench and Kaitlin Evans pulled down three rebounds as HCHS closed strong.
“Harlan County got some shots with us paying so much attention to Green,” Burchell said. “They are a solid team. They have some bigs and some shooters.”
“We hit shots, especially some of our younger kids,” Green said. “If we can get some of these young ones a little more confident coming off the bench, we would have a weapon with our depth.”
Harlan County (1-0) will play its home opener Thursday against Pineville before traveling to Lexington on Saturday to meet 5th Region power Glasgow at 4 p.m. at Henry Clay.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134