WHITESBURG — In what began as a game matching two of the top teams in eastern Kentucky, Letcher Central, ranked third in the 14th Region, against Harlan County, ranked fifth in the 13th Region, ended as a showdown between two of eastern Kentucky’s best players, Letcher Central junior guard Torrell Carter against Harlan County junior guard Cameron Carmical.
Carmical scored 11 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter as the Bears survived a tournament-like test in their season opener for a 66-63 win.
“Cameron controlled everything,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “He’s in his natural position at point guard, and he’s hard to guard. They were throwing everything at him. We just have to get the other guys to put it in the hole, because if you’re open he’ll find you.”
“He showed why he’s such a great player in that region,” Letcher Central coach Robert Hammonds said. “We had no answer for Carmical.”
Carter was just as good for the Cougars with a 25-point performance that included 12 points in a fourth quarter that eventually settled into Carmical often going one-on-one on one end with Carter doing the same on the other.
“I told the kids before the game he would get his, no matter what we do,” Jones said. “He’s a really nice player. We just didn’t want the other guys to beat us.”
Both teams were missing key ingredients as HCHS standout junior guard Treyce Spurlock was limited to just over 12 minutes due to foul problems and Letcher senior guard Jordan Gregory didn’t play at all due to a combination of illness and injury.
“They did a good job of attacking him, and he had some fouls he’d like to take back,” Jones said. “But I told Treyce in the locker room that what I was most proud of was that he was a leader on the bench when he was out of the game. He showed a lot of maturity.”
“We were a little short-handed tonight, but that’s no excuse,” Hammonds said. “We didn’t defend and we didn’t rebound like we should, and that’s why they got the good win.”
The Bears led by as many as 10 points in the second quarter before a late Letcher run put the Cougars up by two at the break. Letcher extended its lead to seven in the third quarter before Harlan County battled back to take the lead by one going into the final period.
Carmical and Carter spend most of the fourth period trading shots and baskets. Letcher led by six with four minutes left, but Carmical scored on the next two trips with a 3-pointer and jumper and Tyrese Simmons, who added 13 points, scored inside to cap a 7-0 run that put the Bears up by one.
The lead changed hands four more times before David Turner’s basket with 1:28 left put HCHS up by one. Carmical and Letcher’s Tyler Collins traded misses, then the two teams traded turnovers on the next four possessions as the pressure escalated. Carmical knocked the ball away from Carter with seven seconds left and drew a foul when he grabbed the loose ball. He hit both shots for a three-point lead.
Letcher guard Austin Caudil, who scored 12 points, missed a 3-pointer as time expired.
Harlan County scored the game’s first six points, but Spurlock’s early foul problems coincided with Letcher’s first comeback as the Cougars pulled even at 11. Simmons and Carmical each hit 3-pointers in the final minute of the period to help the Bears go up 19-15.
The Bears led by as many as 10 points on two occasions midway through the second period on baskets by sophomores Drew Nolan and Lamar Burkhart. Harlan County was still up by eight after a free throw by Jacob Branson with 2:22 left in the half, but with Spurlock and Simmons both on the bench in foul trouble the Bears couldn’t hold the lead. Letcher reeled off 12 unanswered points as Austin Banks hit three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt, then followed with a 3-pointer. Greg Kincer also had a trey in the run and Carter completed a three-point play.
Carmical’s basket in the closing seconds of the half ended the run and cut the Cougars’ lead to 34-32 at halftime.
“We made enough plays to win the game. I’m proud of the kids,” Jones said. “The effort was there I was afraid our inexperience would show. We had a good summer and two good scrimmages, but when you start the season kids tend to look at it differently. I’m trying to get them not to, to just relax and play. We missed a bunch of easy shots and free throws, but we made the plays down the stretch to win the game.”
“For an early season game, I thought both teams played hard and both had a good strategy,” Hammonds said. “They executed down the stretch like a good team should. We didn’t execute at times.”
Harlan County returns to action Saturday against Madison Southern at Jackson County.
Freshman guard Gabe Price scored 12 points to lead the Harlan County junior varsity team to a 39-32 win in its season opener.
Jacob Branson and Matthew Simpson added seven points each for the Bears. Alex Pace, Joey Swanner and Michael Simpson scored four each. Christian Hall added one.
Tyler Stacy scored 20 to lead the Cougars. Dalton Morton scored four. Gregory Kincer added three. Skyler Yonts and Tyler Boggs contributed two each. Dawson Seals scored one.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134