LOG MOUNTAIN — Stopping Blair Green was often the only requirement necessary for beating Harlan County during the 2015 season, one big reason why the Lady Bears suffered through the first losing season in program history.
It’s starting to look as if the task is a little more complicated in 2016 with standout sophomore center Kaylea Gross showing why she was also rated as one of the region’s to players coming into the season.
Gross dominated on Saturday, hitting 10 of 11 shots in a 25-point, 11-rebound effort that propelled the Lady Bears to a 71-56 win over defending 13th Region champ Bell County.
“It’s hard to guard both Kaylea and Blair, and Kaylea played real well tonight around the basket,” said Harlan County coach Debbie Green. “We were able to get the ball to her, and she made some plays, plus did a great job on the offensive boards.”
Gross was especially effective in the fourth quarter after Bell had cut the Lady Bears’ lead to single digits. Gross hit six of six shots in the quarter and pulled down five rebounds, several on the offensive end that led to two three-point plays.
“Gross hurt us. She’s a really nice post player,” Bell County coach David Teague said. “We knew we had to do a good job on both Green and Gross. Blair hit several free throws, but she only had four baskets. She will score, and we committed some silly fouls on her. Gross really hurt us around the basket with rebounding and finishing around the basket. We didn’t move and we didn’t react.”
While Green hit only four of 12 shots from the field, she still played a big role in the win as she connected on 14 of 16 at the free-throw line in a 22-point effort. Sophomore guard Rebecca Middleton was also big in the clutch as she hit five of six at the line in the fourth quarter and added 11 points.
Bell County (8-4) placed three seniors in double figures with guards Katrina Johnson and Allison Howard scoring 15 and 13 points, respectively, while center Zoe Taylor added 11 points and seven rebounds.
The Lady Bears led from the middle of the first quarter to the end, but Bell made several runs.
Baskets by Gross and Phebe McHargue put HCHS up by 18 early in the third quarter before Howard and Taylor led a charge that pulled the Lady Cats within eight heading into the final period, at 39-31. A jumper and two free throws by Green to answer Bell baskets kept Harlan County in control.
With Bell focused on Green and Gross, the HCHS guards built an early lead as Middleton hit two 3-pointers and Phebe McHargue added one in an 11-2 that put the Lady Bears up by eight. Gross added two baskets in the final minute of the period as Harlan County held a 17-9 lead at the end of the period.
A 3-pointer by Caleigh Collett cut the deficit to five early in the second quarter, but it proved to be the last basket of the half for the Lady Cats. Harlan County responded with an 11-1 run highlighted by a 3-pointer from Noah Canady and the first two baskets of the game by Green. Johnson ended the drought for Bell with a free throw in the final minute, but Green hit two for HCHS as the Lady Bears led 30-14 at the break.
“We had people step up and hit some shots with them in the box-and-one on Blair,” Green said. “Noah hit a big shot, and so did Phebe and Becca. I think they see how much easier it is to play when you hit some shots.”
“We only had five points in the (second) quarter, and it’s tough to do that against a good basketball team,” Teague said. “You have to put so much energy and effort into getting back into it. It makes it tough.”
Knocking off the defending region champs improved Harlan County overall record to 10-5 and district mark to 2-1.
“Its a big district win and a big conference win. We really wanted to get this win over here,” Green said.
Bell fell to 8-4 overall and 0-2 in district action with losses to both HCHS and Harlan.
Both teams return to action in the WYMT Mountain Classic at Knott Central High School. Harlan County will play defending 15th Region champ Johnson Central on Monday at 8:15. Bell County will play the winner of Monday’s Breathitt County-Harlan game on Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134