After losing four of their top six players to graduation from a 2015 team that won 18 games and a 52nd District Tournament, many wondered if the Harlan County Black Bears could be as good in 2016.
It turns out, they are better.
Harlan County improved to 23-4 on the season and won its second straight district title with a 68-43 rout of visiting Bell County on Friday in a rematch of last year’s finals.
“I think when summer started not many people expected this from these kids, but they bought into what we are trying to teach, and they play their tails off for us,” said Harlan County coach Michael Jones, who has led the Bears to district titles in his first two seasons as coach. “I’m extremely proud of them. We lost a lot last year. Our young kids came in and played hard, and Cameron (Carmical) and Treyce (Spurlock) brought them along during the year and took care of them. They followed their lead, and as a result we’re district champs.”
The Bears weren’t nearly as sharp on offense as they have been at times this season, shooting 40 percent (18 of 46) from the field, but won the battle of the boards and played a strong game on defense, challenging every shot while forcing 18 turnovers.
“Our defense for about 95 percent of the game was outstanding,” Jones said. “Our kids followed the gameplan to perfection. I’m really proud of them. We really got after them.”
Senior center Zach Partin supplied most of the offense for Bell County (12-16) with 20 points on seven-of-12 shooting. The rest of the team had seven field goals on 26 attempts for 27 percent shooting.
“They just came out and took it to us. They played real well,” Bell County coach Lewis Morris said. “They were more physical than we were, and we’re so limited at certain spots that we can’t make mistakes like we made. We came out and shot the ball quick, turned it over and it just escalated.”
“We wanted to concentrate our defense on Partin. He’s a load and a great player,” Jones said. “We wanted to double and triple team him when he got it on the block and make those other kids beat us. We did a pretty good job of that.”
Treyce Spurlock and Cameron Carmical, both juniors, again led the Bears, finishing with 19 and 17 points, respectively.
“With those guards, they run their stuff well. They can score and drive the ball well. You get down like that, it takes a good scoring team to come back,” Morris said. “Their guards are as good as anybody’s in the region. Treyce is a hard matchup with his size, plus he shoots it real well. They have a nice team.”
Sophomore forward Tyrese Simmons added 11 points and five rebounds while creating havoc on defense with his athleticism.
“I thought Simmons really sparked them,” Morris said. “He really kicked our tails in there getting loose balls and rebounds and doing all the little stuff.”
Bell County never led in the game but made a run midway through the third quarter, cutting a 16-point deficit to eight on a basket by Victor Morris and five straight points from Partin, prompting a timeout from Jones.
Drew Nolan hit a 3-pointer after the timeout and Andrew Creech added another at the buzzer to extend the Bears’ lead back to 13 points, at 49-36.
“We fought and clawed the third quarter, but Drew hit that 3 and it was a big momentum swing,” Morris said. “After that, it was over.”
Harlan County blew the game open in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Bobcats 19-7. Spurlock had two baskets in the period, including the highlight play of the night with a steal and dunk to push the lead to 59-40. Carmical, Spurlock and freshman Gabe Price followed with baskets as the Bears built their lead to as many as 28 points.
Harlan County raced to a 15-4 lead as the Bears’ defense made it difficult for Bell to find open shots. Simmons had three baskets and Lamar Burkhart added a basket and two free throws to lead HCHS in the opening quarter. Carmical closed the period with a 3-pointer to put the Bears up 20-8.
A 3-pointer by Spurlock stretched the lead to 13, but the Bears went cold from there, hitting only one of 11 shots in the period. HCHS managed to stay in control by hitting seven of eight free throws and winning on the boards, getting four shots on one trip.
Partin hit all four of his shots in the quarter to keep Bell in the game, but the Bears maintained an 11-point lead (30-19) at halftime.
Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament opening Wednesday at the Corbin Arena.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134