CORBIN — After a first half where his Clay County Tigers never led, Robert Marcum turned the season over to his senior stars.
Blake Smith and Trey Farmer responded, just like they usually do, in taking over in the second half to help the Tigers pull away for a 54-43 win over Harlan County in the 13th Region Tournament semifinals on Saturday afternoon at the Corbin Arena. Smith scored 21 points and Farmer added 19 as the Tigers improved to 25-7 and moved into the 13th Region finals for the fifth straight year.
“We wanted to isolate Farmer and Smith and get the ball in their hands,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said.
“They are great players, and I thought we let them get where they wanted to too easy in the fourth quarter,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “They are outstanding talents.”
For Harlan County (24-5), it was a disappointing ending to a surprisingly good season. The Bears lost only twice all season against a 13th Region opponent and dominated 52nd District competition, winning a second straight title despite having a roster with no seniors and five sophomores among its top eight players.
Perhaps for the first time this season, the Bears’ youth showed as they wilted under pressure with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, missing eight of 10 at the free throw line while hitting only two of 12 shots from the field.
“I tell them before games not to let the game get bigger than you,” Jones said. “I thought it did. I thought it got bigger than a lot of our kids, maybe all of them. You can’t do that if you are going to win a regional tournament.
Marcum’s switch to an extended 2-2-1 back to a 2-3 paid off for the Tigers. After hitting seven of 13 shots in the first quarter, the Bears made only eight of 31 the rest of the way.
“We were just trying to give them different looks,” Marcum said. “I’m very familiar with Michael and his dad, and I have a lot of respect for them and know they’re very structured. I wanted to try and get them out of their comfort zone. I think the 2-2-1 back to the 2-3 really helped us the second half. They were making a lot of shots, but I think they got fatigued, and so did we. I was going to take a gamble and hoped they miss them, and luckily for us they did.”
“I don’t think that was what hurt us,” Jones said. “When we got the ball in the middle like we were supposed to, good things happened. We just didn’t step up in crunch time and make free throws.”
Harlan County scored first on a 3-pointer by Carmical, the first of four in seven attempts for the Bears in the opening period. Spurlock’s 3 pushed the Bears’ lead to four, at 11-7, and Carmical’s third trey made it 16-11.
Two free throws by Drew Nolan extended the Bears’ advantage to 11. Smith scored for Clay, but Nolan answered with a jumper as the Bears led 20-13 after one period.
The Bears missed their first five shots in the second quarter as Clay closed to within three on baskets by Wes Wolfe and Farmer. Spurlock broke the drought with a pair of baskets, extending Harlan County’s lead back to seven with 1:52 left.
The two baskets by Spurlock were the only two in the quarter for the Bears, and Clay closed with a 6-0 run, capped by Smith’s driving basket, to cut the deficit to 26-25 by halftime.
Clay tied the game on a three-point play by Farmer with 6:48 left in the third quarter. Nolan put the Bears back on top before Smith had two baskets and Farmer added one in a 6-0 run to put the Tigers up by four. Carmical found Simmons for a layup, then scored himself to tie the game again.
One basket each by Smith and Farmer sandwiched around a free throw from Spurlock put Clay ahead 38-35 after three quarters.
Despite the loss, the Bears appear to be in good position for another run next year with their entire roster returning.
“I’m proud of these kids. They are disappointed, and they’re some hurt kids in there right now, along with a hurt coach,” Jones said. “I want them to learn from this. We’ll be back.”
Clay County will play South Laurel on Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the 13th Region Tournament finals.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134