CORBIN — Harlan County sophomore center Kaylea Gross heard a challenge from the South Laurel bench.
She answered with a 17-foot jumper midway through the first quarter that hit nothing but net. She liked it so much she answered again and again and again, hitting nine of 12 shots in a 22-point performance that lifted the Lady Bears to a 51-44 win over South Laurel in the 13th Region Tournament semifinals on Saturday at the Corbin Arena.
“He (South Laurel coach Troy Thomas) kept saying leave her open, she’s not going to make it,” said Gross. “I said OK, I’m going to make them. He said ‘don’t even guard her, she’s not going to make it. So, I just shot it.”
Thomas said leaving Gross open was a gamble he had to take with Harlan County guard Blair Green posting up his smaller guards.
“They were posting up Blair, and with the small guards we have it would have been hard to stop her. It’s like picking your poison,” Thomas said. “We made some adjustments and did a better job. They got out of it the second half. They’re a good basketball team, but I feel it was a lot closer than seven.”
“Kayle played above and beyond, and that’s what saved us,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “We know she can hit that shot, and we’ve been telling her to shoot because it will open up so much more. She has a beautiful shot.”
Harlan County missed its first five free throws in an ugly fourth quarter where each team just scored seven points. Neither team scored for over four minutes before Taylor Cromer hit a 3-pointer to cut Harlan County’s lead to 46-43.
A Gross layup pushed the lead back to five before Davis hit one of two with 2:13 left. South missed a couple of chances to get closer before McHargue put the game away with two free throws with 31.7 seconds left.
“It was very unlike us,” Green said, “For the rest of us not to play well, I was happy we were able to hang on and play above our years a little. We’re happy to be there.”
Green added 11 points for the 23-8 Lady Bears.
Junior forward Shelby Davis had a big game for South Laurel (16-17) with 21 points.
South raced to an early 10-3 lead sparked by two 3-pointers from Davis, but three straight jumpers by Gross and a basket inside off a Phebe McHargue steal put HCHS on top. Green added a basket and McHargue hit two free throws to put the Lady Bears up 15-13 after one quarter.
Two baskets by Green and one each from Lainey Cox, Gross and Breann Turner pushed Harlan County’s advantage to 10 early in the second quarter. The Lady Bears maintained the lead going into the break, up 34-24.
South battled back to within four on a 3-pointer by Ally Collett, but baskets by Green and McHargue gave HCHS a 44-37 advantage going into the final period.
The win sets up an all-Harlan County championship game on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. It’s the first time two Harlan County teams have met in the finals since Harlan defeated Cumberland in 1987. It will be the fifth meeting between the two teams this year, with Harlan winning three of four, including last week’s 52nd District Tournament championship.
“Confidence is the key. We have to be ready to play,” Gross said.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134