HINDMAN — Before they can win a regional championship, whether this year or in the next two when their young lineup becomes a veteran one, the Harlan County Lady Bears knew they had to first prove they could beat their closest rival, the Harlan Lady Dragons, who also happen to be the 13th Region favorite.
After six straight losses to the Lady Dragons, Harlan County broke through Saturday in the consolation game of the WYMT Mountain Classic, edging Harlan 48-44 in a defensive struggle.
Harlan County employed a similar strategy to the one used by Bell County on Tuesday in handing the Lady Dragons their first region loss. With freshman Phebe McHargue guarding Jordan Brock and sophomore Rebecca Middleton on Brooklyn Massingill, HCHS succeeded in limiting the Harlan stars to only 15 shots and 14 points combined.
“I told both of them they were the players of the game. It doesn’t matter if they score zero points,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “We had a gameplan, and they stuck to it and did what they were supposed to do. Reanna (Middleton) came off the bench and helped us on defense. The other three had no breaks at all and did a great job.”
“I know we’ll continue to see this the way coaches communicate. We’ve got two games on film, so we have to go to work,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “A coach told me once it’s a coach’s job to get you shots and it’s your job to make shots. I’m going to get them those shots. We’ve come down here the last two games and learned a lesson.”
Harlan County struggled on offense, much like Harlan, but the Lady Bears owned the glass with a 42-26 advantage fueled by 17 rebounds from sophomore center Kaylea Gross and 15 by freshman forward Breann Turner.
“They’ve got a good frontline,” Akal said. “Kaylea, Blair (Green) and Turner all crash the boards hard. We’ve also learned we have to be a better rebounding team to accomplish what we want to accomplish.”
“Kaylee and Bree got some big rebounds,” Green said. “They all played real well.”
Gross bounced back from a seven-point performance in a loss to Knott Central on Wednesday by scoring 19 on eight-of-12 shooting.
“Our plan was to get Kaylea the ball, and she did a great job,” Green said.
Sophomore guard Blair Green added 15 points for the Lady Bears on a rare off night shooting, but she was more valuable helping the HCHS guards by doubling on Brock and Massingill.
With the Lady Bears focusing on Brock and Massingill, sophomore forward Emma Bianchi led Harlan (13-3) with 21 points, hitting five of 10 beyond the 3-point line. Massingill added 10 points.
Bianchi took 11 of Harlan’s 15 shots in the first quarter, hitting four 3-pointers in seven attempts. Gross hit four of five shots for HCHS, while McHargue and Green added two each as the teams played to a 17-17 tie.
Offense slowed to a crawl after that as HCHS built a 27-22 lead by halftime with Green and Gross each scoring twice.
Harlan County hit only two of 16 shots in the third quarter as Harlan pulled to within two by the end of the period, at 34-32, as Massingill and Bianchi each hit 3-pointers.
Harlan tied the game on two free throws by Massingill to start the fourth period, but HCHS quickly answered on two baskets by Gross sandwiched around one by Green to go up 40-34 with six minutes left.
The Lady Dragons cut the deficit to two twice after that, but Green answered each time, first with a short jumper with 1:08 to play and then with two free throws with 27 seconds left.
Bianchi’s basket with five seconds to play pulled Harlan to within three. Harlan had a chance to get the ball back when the inbounds pass was briefly knocked away, but McHargue picked it up and drew a foul. She hit one of two to clinch the victory.
“I think this will help us in the long run because we can learn from it,” Akal said. “Hats off to HC for a great gameplan. We’ll learn from this and get better.”
Harlan returns to action Tuesday at home against Red Bird in the first round of the 13th Region All “A” Classic. Harlan County will be at home on Friday against Knott Central, the preseason 14th Region favorite and the team that beat the Lady Bears in the WYMT semifinals.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134