HINDMAN — With five wins in the WYMT Mountain Classic coming into Wednesday night’s opening-round game against Buckhorn, the Harlan County Black Bears ranked third among 13th Region teams in the tournament’s 29-year history.
The Bears, however, hadn’t enjoyed any success in the opening round of their three previous trips. HCHS had won all five games in the consolation bracket but had lost all three of their first-round games.
Harlan County ended the first-round losing skid and earned its first trip to the semifinals with a 68-56 win over Buckhorn, overcoming a slow start with a strong effort on defense and on the boards.
“It was a struggle offensively. I don’t know if it was nerves, but we finally relaxed. Our defense did keep us in it the first half,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “I was real proud of the way these kids played the second half. We got after them a little bit at halftime and they responded, and I’m proud of that.”
While Jones was happy with his team’s intensity, Buckhorn coach John Noble could not say the same about his Wildcats, who fell to 6-9 despite being picked second in the 14th Region preseason polls.
“Rebounding is about effort, and if you get whipped on the boards you’ve been outworked. We’re not good enough to get outworked,” Noble said.
Harlan County (13-2) placed four in double figures in its most balanced offensive effort of the season. Treyce Spurlock scored 15 to lead the Bears, followed by Cameron Carmical and Tyrese Simmons with 14 each and Drew Nolan with 13.
“This was Drew’s, hopefully, coming out party,” Jones said. “We’ve talked to him about catching it and shooting in rhythm. He played real well tonight, and so did Tyrese, who was real active. We know we’ll get something good every night from Treyce and Cameron. When we get those other two, three, four or five playing with them, we’re a good basketball team.”
Balance was not a strength for the Wildcats as senior guards Connor Hoskins and Josh Crank scored all but eight of Buckhorn’s points. Hoskins poured in 26 points and Crank added 22.
“We have to have more out of everybody,” Noble said. “Even the guys who scored most of the points had too many turnovers. The effort has to be better for 32 minutes, for everybody from 1 to 8. I thought we played well in spurts, but foul trouble hurt us when Crank went out, and they did a good job of capitalizing on that with the press
Hoskins and Crank were hot early and the Bears weren’t as Buckhorn built a 13-10 lead after one quarter, an advantage the Wildcats extended to six midway through the second quarter before Harlan County turned the momentum with its defense.
Nolan started an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer. Carmical followed with four straight points, and Spurlock put the Bears up by five with consecutive layups. A three-point play by Hoskins to close the half cut the deficit to 26-24.
Nolan and Simmons took over in the third quarter as the Bears owned the glass, leading to several second-chance points that helped Harlan County built a 51-34 lead by the end of the period. Simmons had three baskets in the quarter, while Carmical and Nolan added two each. The Bears forced six turnovers in the period and had none of their own.
Buckhorn picked up the pressure in the fourth quarter as Harlan County turned the ball over five times, after only one turnover in the previous three quarters. Crank had four baskets in the last period and Hoskins added three as the Wildcats got as close as 11.
The Bears were able to answer each Buckhorn run as Spurlock had three baskets in the fourth quarter and Nolan and Simmons added two each.
Harlan County will play South Laurel (11-2) in the semifinals on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. South Laurel advanced with a 55-47 win over Letcher Central in the first game Tuesday.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134