In a showdown of the 13th Region’s preseason No. 1 and No. 2 teams, neither coach was willing to attach the “Big Game” label.
“It’s a combination of a big game and just another game,” North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan said. “In the long run, this is nothing. It’s a loss. You don’t want those on your record.”
Harlan County coach Derrick Akal was on the winning side of the 46-43 score but gave a similar assessment.
“This is our first game of the season. We’ve still got a lot of things to work out, but a win is a win. We’re glad to get a win on the road,” Akal said.
Big game or not, the fourth quarter was worthy of the postseason with five lead changes before Jordan Brock put the Lady Dragons ahead for good with 18 seconds.
“I’m going to have to find somebody I can go to in crunch time. That is the difference I think in our two teams right now. They know who they are. They know (Jordan) Brock is going to get it done in crunch time,” Mahan said.
It was a slow start for North Laurel with its first field goal coming 4:30 into the game. Most of the Lady Jaguars’ problems were self-inflicted with six first-quarter turnovers. They were able to compete by forcing six Harlan turnovers as well.
“You come on the road and play the No. 2 team in the region, a really good defensive team in North Laurel, and our first game. I thought they had as much to do with it as our jitters,” Akal said.
Harlan closed the first quarter with Brooklyn Massingill scoring inside with 35 seconds left, followed by Emma Bianchi connecting on a 3-pointer for a 14-5 lead. The Lady Jaguars were without leading scorer Kayla Bruner most of the first quarter due to foul trouble.
North Laurel also started the second quarter cold with no field goals for the first three minutes. When Bruner connected with her first bucket of the game, the Lady Dragons still led 19-8. Bruner finished with 12 points.
“We wanted to concentrate on her a little bit more than we did last year. Last year she put up 38 points and about 14 rebounds. Tonight we were a little more conscious of where she was on the floor,” Akal said.
The first bucket by the 13th Region’s No. 3 rated player did seem to spark North Laurel. A 3-pointer and two free throws from Hannah Lawson trimmed the lead to 19-13. North Laurel pulled as close as 23-21 on a 3-pointer by Isabel Gray.
“We can go on a dry spell. We are a team of runs right now. Bruner helped when she got back in,” Bruner said.
Harlan closed out the half with Bianchi scoring on an assist from Jordan Brock. Taylor Simpson followed with a 3-pointer for a 28-21 Harlan lead. The Lady Jaguars cut into the lead further with Harlan managing just four points in the third quarter. The Lady Dragons took a 32-30 lead into the fourth quarter.
“We picked up a couple of fouls and sat a couple of girls down. We had a tough time scoring in that stretch,” Akal said.
Bruner scored in the lane to open the final period and tie the score 32-32. The Lady Jaguars’ first lead came with 5:43 to play on Taylor Combs put back. Brock gave the lead back to Harlan with a baseline drive. Brock, the region’s No. 1 rated played, led Harlan with 16 points.
Next it was North Laurel’s turn with Madison Sheppard converting a three-point play. When Bruner scored on an offensive rebound, North Laurel had its largest lead at 38-35 with 4:37 to play.
“I thought we fought back after being down early, after playing horribly in the first quarter,” Mahan said.
It took just 12 seconds for the Lady Dragons to tie the game. Massengill had not shot well, but she did not hesitate. Her 3-pointer tied the game. She followed that with a pull up off a turnover to put Harlan back on top 40-38.
With 2:22 to play, Gray tied the game for the fourth and final time with a pair of free throws. North Laurel regained the lead 43-42 with 42 seconds when Bruner drove straight down the lane for a layup. Harlan missed its next attempt to take the lead. The Lady Dragons were able to claim the rebound, which set up Brock’s jumper with 18 seconds to play.
“On the floor tonight you had four or five of the top players in the region. I felt like down the stretch they all showed up,” Akal said.
Bruner got one more chance with five seconds left, but her shot would not go. Brock sealed the win with a pair of free throws.
“In a program like ours that is fighting for that top-tier status, these are ones you want to close out. These are ones you want to get,” Mahan said.
The Lady Dragons played without sophomore center Mackenzie King, who is serving a suspension for being ejected in the Southeastern Kentucky Conference Panorama.
Harlan returns to action Monday at home against Clay County.