With their triangle-and-two defense designed to contain Harlan stars Jordan Brock and Brooklyn Massingill, the Harlan County Lady Bears were trying to force someone else to beat them when the two district rivals met last month in the WYMT Mountain Classic. The strategy worked as HCHS broke a six-game losing streak against the Lady Dragons with a 48-44 win.
Harlan was ready for the rematch, hitting seven of 11 shots in the first quarter to build an early lead on the way to a 54-43 lead that clinched the top seed in the 52nd District Tournament.
With the Lady Bears focused on the Harlan guards, sophomore forward Mackenzie King hit four of four shots in the opening quarter. Junior forward Emma Bianchi added a pair of 3-pointers later in the game.
“I have girls who can shoot the ball, and I thought Kenzie and Emma did a good job hitting shots early because Brooklyn and Jordan still weren’t getting their shots,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “It’s a tough defense to play against, but we’ve seen it from Bell and HC earlier, so I think the girls are getting more comfortable.”
“They had girls who hit shots,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “What we did was a good gameplan. The first quarter killed us. We have to do a better job of getting out on their shooters.”
Another factor in the turnaround was rebounding. Harlan County outrebounded Harlan 42-26 in the WYMT tourney, but Harlan won 22-17 on Thursday.
“Kaylea (Gross) and Breann (Turner) each had double figures in rebounding the last game, and I told our girls that was just about toughness,” Akal said. “I challenged them today to do a better job on the boards. I thought Mackenzie, Emma, Jordan and Brookyn all did a good job on the boards today.
Brock scored 18 points, Massingill contributed 16 and King added 12 points and seven rebounds as the Lady Dragons improved to 20-4 overall and 5-0 in district action.
Harlan County (18-7 overall, 4-2 district) was led by Blair Green with 20 points and Kaylea Gross with 14. Junior guard Rebecca Middleton was limited to one point after suffering a broken hand during the game that will likely sideline her the rest of the season.
King spoiled the HCHS strategy early by hitting four straight shots. Brock and Massingill added 3-pointers as Harlan built a 19-8 lead by the end of the period.
Gross had a basket and two free throws in the opening three and a half minutes as Harlan County trailed 7-6 before Harlan went on a 12-2 run to close the quarter.
King hit her fifth straight shot in the opening minute of the second quarter as Harlan took its biggest lead at 24-11 before Harlan County went on a run of its own, outscoring the Lady Dragons 11-2, led by three baskets from Gross, to get as close as four, at 26-22.
After picking up her second foul, Brock briefly sat, but she was back into the game 90 seconds and three turnovers later. Showing much more aggressiveness with the ball than in the last meeting against HCHS, Brock hit a jumper and three of four free throws to help the Lady Dragons extend their lead to 34-28 at halftime.
Akal went to his spread offense midway through the third quarter with Harlan up by eight. HCHS seemed to briefly grab the momentum at that point as Green hit two straight shots to cut the deficit to 40-36.
“We were up, and I didn’t want to live and die with just taking 3s,” Akal said. “Kaylea, Bree and Blair are three tough, tall players to get in there and get layups on. Since they were in that triangle-and-two, I knew there was a lot of space on the floor we could use that and make them have to guard us for more than five seconds. I didn’t want to take quick shots.”
“We didn’t finish shots late in the game, and they got some offensive rebounds,” Green said. “I thought we had the momentum until Blair got her fourth foul. It kind of steamrolled after that.”
A 3-pointer by Massingill to close the third quarter pushed Harlan’s lead back to eight, then she added a jumper to start the fourth period to make it 46-36.
With Harlan up by nine, Turner and Gross each missed two free throws. The Lady Bears also turned the ball over, coming up empty during a two-minute stretch when the Lady Dragons also didn’t score. Brock and Massingill each hit two free throws in the final minute to put the game away.
Massingill took over much of the ball-handling duties in the fourth quarter and scored eight of the Lady Dragons’ 10 points in the quarter.
“Brooklyn is very capable of handling the ball. She did a good job,” Akal said.
Harlan County will have to knock off defending region champ Bell County to get another shot at Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament finals, but the Lady Bears have two wins over Bell this year and have lost only twice in 13 games against 13th Region opponents, both to Harlan.
“We’re young and we’re learning. They’re No. 1 and the monkey is on their back to win,” Green said of Harlan. “We’re getting better every game, but our kids have to do a better job. The ball didn’t bounce our way a few times. You have to take care of the basketball, and we didn’t a few times. I’m still excited. I like our chances and I like our team.”
Harlan returns to action Tuesday at Bell County in a girls/boys doubleheader. Harlan County plays host to Letcher Central on Monday.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134