HAZARD — With 11-1 Harlan, the top-ranked team in the 13th Region, on one side, and 11-1 Shelby Valley, the top-ranked team in the 15th Region, on the other, it appeared the finals of the Lady Bulldogs Holiday Classic on Wednesday was destined to be a showdown between arguably the top two teams in eastern Kentucky.
Harlan turned the script to an entirely different story with a 22-0 run in the third quarter, transforming a potential hoops classic into a basketball clinic. The Lady Dragons established themselves as eastern Kentucky’s best team going into the new year with a shockingly easy 67-29 rout.
“I didn’t think we played well against Hazard last night, but then they beat Menifee County by 20 points (In the third-place game), so you have to give them some respect,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “They may have been a little tired, but tonight they were ready to go. I think our defensive effort tonight was the best we’ve had all season.”
Junior forward Emma Bianchi turned Harlan from a good team into a great one with a 22-point, nine-rebound that complemented the Lady Dragons’ backcourt tandem of Brooklyn Massingll and Jordan Brock as Massingil scored 16 and Brock added 11.
“(UK coach John) Calipari tells (Alex) Poythress to be an athlete, and tonight Emma was an athlete,” Akal said. “She hit 3s, she blocked shots, she guarded guards, she guarded posts, got offensive rebounds, got defensive rebounds, got to the bucket and ran the floor. That changes the whole dynamic of our team when she plays like that. She made the difference tonight.”
Shelby Valley (11-2) shot only 28 percent (11 of 40) from the field and was outrebounded 33-11.
“Any time you stop making shots it affects your defense, and that’s what happened,” Shelby Valley coach Rodney Rowe said. “They have a great team, but I think we quit defending when we quit making shots. It seemed our intensity dropped and we quit communicating.”
Shelby Valley set the tone for the first quarter by working for over a minute on the opening possession before missing a shot. Each team had only two field goals in the opening period, playing to a 4-4 tie.
“They held the ball. They were very patient on offense during that four-point quarter,” Akal said. “It concerned me a little, but I think we were playing really good defense. I don’t think they were trying to hold it.”
The Lady Cats led 12-11 midway through the second quarter when Massingill started a 9-0 run with a three-point play. Bianchi, Brock and Mackenzie King also had baskets as the Harlan lead grew to 20-12.
Kayla Newsome stopped the Lady Cats’ drought with a driving basket, but Massingill closed the half with a 3-pointer to put Harlan up 23-14 at the break.
“I think it took us a while to figure out what they were doing against our screen and roll,” Akal said. “Once we figured out what they were doing to us on defense, we were able to exploit it a little. Also, when their post player (Lakyn Mullins) went out, Emma and Kenzie (King) were able to take control inside.”
Kyleigh Tackett hit a pair of 3-pointers in the opening three minutes of the third quarter to get the Lady Cats as close as four, but soon after that the roof caved in on Shelby Valley.
Bianchi and Massingill started the 22-0 run with 3-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor. Brock and Bianchi each scored inside. Massingill and Brock took turns scoring on the next four trips as Harlan turned the game into a 48-22 rout before two free throws by Savannah Belcher finally ended the Harlan run.
With the game decided, eighth-grade guard Natalee King provided the highlight of the final four minutes with a pair of 3-pointers. It was the first time the three King sisters played together in a game as Natalee joined McKenzie, a sophomore, and Katie, a senior, in the Harlan lineup. Bianchi also had three baskets and four rebounds in the period as Harlan outrebounded Shelby Valley 12-0.
Harlan (12-1) returns to action Monday, taking on Breathitt County in the WYMT Mountain Classic at Knott Central High School.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134