In danger of earning headlines as the state’s biggest upset victim on the first night of postseason play, the Harlan Lady Dragons had to count on defense to stay alive as they faced a four-point deficit at halftime Monday against Middlesboro.
Harlan battled back in the second half, limiting Middlesboro to two field goals and five points while scoring just enough to squeak out a 32-29 win in the opening round of the 52nd District Tournament at Harlan County High School.
“(Middlesboro coach) Ron (Edwards) has done such a good job with them,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “We knew coming into the game they would take care of the basketball and run their offense. When you shoot 15 to 20 percent the first half like we did, nights like this will happen.”
“They were a little tight, and I told our girls to play loose and hit some shots,” Edwards said. “A couple of layups here or free throws there we may have knocked them off, and it would have been the biggest upset in the state. “
The Lady Dragons shot a little better than their coach remembered, hitting six of 20 (30 percent) shots for the half, but they hit only two of 10 in the first quarter as Middlesboro built a 12-5 lead.
Senior guard Erica Gambrel, who led Middlesboro with 13 points, hit two shots in the period, as did junior forward Baylie Brunsma.
The Middlesboro lead was still at six with 3:23 left in the half when junior guard Jordan Brock reeled off six straight points to tie the game at 18-18. Midlesboro answered as Hannah Warren hit a 3-pointer to put the Lady Jackets ahead 24-20 at halftime.
Harlan picked up its intensity level on defense in the third quarter with a man to man, then a matchup zone, that led to six turnovers and kept Middlesboro from scoring until Gambrel’s basket with 21 seconds left that cut the Lady Dragons’ lead to 30-26 going into the fourth period.
Harlan also struggled offensively and was scoreless for almost four minutes to start the quarter before Mackenzie King hit a jumper. Brock, Katie King and Mackenzie King each had baskets in a 10-0 run that decided the game.
“They were the best team on the floor for 30 minutes, but we had about two minutes where we played pretty well, got the lead and stayed ahead,” Akal said.
With the four-point lead, Akal decided to hold the ball and force Middlesboro out of its 2-3 zone. Edwards, hoping to stay in the game until the end, was happy to let him.
“We were hoping to shorten the game. We just subbed once, so we were biding our time. It almost worked,” Edwards said.
Akal also liked the idea of shortening the game and taking his chances at the end.
“I told the girls the way we were playing offensively, I wanted to shorten the game. I probably wouldn’t have said that the first four minutes, but with the lead I was taking my chances that we could make stops or go to the free throw line,” he said. “I wanted to shorten the game, and I know he did, too. Even though we were playing pretty good defense, it seemed everything was going wrong. I think it was a little misleading though, holding them to 29 points, because they didn’t have that many possessions.”
Middlesboro let over four minutes pass before putting pressure on the Lady Dragons, who turned it over with 3:33 left. Middlesboro’s Bailey Hensley and Harlan’s Brooklyn Massingill each missed shots as neither team scored in the quarter until Gambrel hit one of two at the line with 1:24 left in the game. Brock, who led Harlan (23-4) with 15 points, hit a jumper with 1:04 left. Hensley answered to cut the deficit back to three with 48 seconds left.
Brock missed at the line with 20 seconds left, giving the Lady Jackets a chance, but Warren turned it over with 20.7 seconds to play. The Lady Jackets were unable to foul until sending Massingill to the line with 1.5 seconds left. Massingill missed but time ran out in the chase for the rebound, sending Harlan to the district finals for the third straight year.
Middlesboro’s season ended with a five-game losing streak and an 11-16 record, a big improvement from last year’s 4-20 mark.
“I’m very proud of the team and the program. I told the girls coming up here that there was no pressure on us, it was all on Harlan,” Edwards said. “The girls executed what we asked them to do, but Harlan was tournament tested, and Derrick has done a great job with them. We’re so close. We can’t get over that hump.”
Harlan will play Harlan County in the district finals on Thursday at 7 p.m. The Lady Dragons won two of three games against HCHS this season.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134