When the 13th Region Tournament meeting is held Saturday morning in Corbin, both the Harlan Lady Dragons and Harlan County Lady Bears will be favored in the first round no matter who they draw.
With Clay County upsetting North Laurel in the 49th District and Pineville surprising Knox Central in the 51st District finals, it appears Harlan County has a slightly less tough road to the finals than Harlan, despite losing to the Lady Dragons in the 52nd District Tournament finals on Thursday night. Harlan County could draw either Pineville, Corbin or Clay County in the first round. Harlan could draw either Knox Central, South Laurel or North Laurel.
The Lady Bears have already defeated Pineville and Clay County during the regular season and have lost to only one 13th Region opponent, and that was Harlan three times. HCHS would be heavily favored over Pineville and have a slight edge over Clay or Corbin.
Harlan will also be favored over all three possible opponents, but if the Lady Dragons draw North Laurel it would set up a game between the two teams ranked at the top of the region all season. Harlan won a close game at North Laurel early in the season in the only meeting between the two teams.
Even though his Lady Dragons beat HCHS by 19 points on Thursday in the district finals, Harlan coach Derrick Akal expects a fifth meeting between the two county rivals next Saturday night in Corbin.
“I told the girls on the bench that they will probably see (Harlan County) again if both teams play like they are capable. That’s a really good basketball team down there,” Akal said. “I told them not to gloat. We won this battle, but the war may not be over. I take my hat off to them. I expect to see them in the regional championship game, even if we’re not there. That’s how good I think they are.”
It would be the second straight championship showdown between 52nd District teams if Harlan and HCHS play again. Bell County beat Harlan in last year’s finals.
The only other all-52nd District final, and the only previous championship matchup between Harlan County teams, was in 1987 at Bell County when Harlan won its first 13th Region Tournament title with a win over Cumberland, the defending regional champ at the time. HCHS coach Debbie Green was an all-state forward on that team.
With her 28-point performance Thursday, Harlan junior guard Jordan Brock joined elite company as a member of the exclusive 2,000-point club.
She has 2,001 points going into the 13th Region Tournament, placing her fourth in county history and only six points behind Green for the school scoring record.
Cumberland’s Lori Kluck is first all-time with 2,107 points. Brock’s teammate, Brooklyn Massingill, is second with 2,023 points, but she scored 1,132 points in three years at Harlan County, so she’s behind Brock on the Harlan list. Green scored 2,007 points, the first girl in county history to reach the 2,000-point plateau.
When Akal picked up his first technical foul of the season midway through the first quarter on Thursday, his Lady Dragons were struggling, but both the coach and his players agreed after the game that it may have helped turn the momentum.
“After coach Akal got the technical, I think it gave us a little boost of energy to pull through for him,” said forward Mackenzie King, who scored 11 straight points to start the second quarter and finished with 24. “He’s a very active coach, and we had to be active players to take up for him.”
“When I got the technical, not on purpose, I think he girls’ intensity picked up,” Akal said. “When Mackenzie’s shots started falling you could see the confidence grow. When we were here last on Monday we shot horribly (a 32-29 win over Middlesboro). When Mackenzie and Brooklyn hit 3s, I could see their confidence growing.”
Despite finishing as regional runner-up the past two years, none of the current Lady Dragons had ever won a 52nd District championship before, except Massingill when she played for Harlan County.
“If feels good to go in the region as a champion instead of a runner-up the past couple of years,” King said, “but there’s plenty of work left.”
Green hopes her Lady Bears can follow Harlan’s lead in the next couple of years. HCHS will be ranked near the top of the region the next several seasons with a starting lineup that currently includes three freshmen and two sophomores on a roster that has no seniors. The Lady Bears are also without guards Rebecca Middleton and K.K. Johnson, who each suffered season-ending injuries.
“Harlan’s kids hadn’t won a district championship and neither had we. They finally got over the hump, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Green said. “Our time is coming. We’re building on experience. We have kids on the way and some who are injured. I think we have a good shot next week. I’m sure no one wants to draw us. We have to give it our best shot. We’re excited to be there.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134