CORBIN — After watching someone else celebrate a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the Corbin Arena floor the past two years, the Harlan Lady Dragons got a chance to experience it themselves Saturday following a 44-36 win over Harlan County in the 13th Region Tournament.
“I can’t take it all in right now. This is crazy,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said moments after their fourth win in five games this season against their county rivals. “With the hard work these girls put in, then come down here the last two years and lose and watch someone else cut down the nets, it was devastating. It feels good to finally win, we’ve made a lot of sacrifices to get here. The hard work paid off.”
On the other side of the court, Harlan County coach Debbie Green was already hoping her Lady Bears could follow the pattern to success followed by Harlan. The Lady Bears bring back their roster next year and will be among the favorites, along with Harlan, for the 2017 title.
“They’ve been here two more times than we have. They’ve been sitting in the same spot as us watching everyone else get championship trophies. We’ve got a young team with everyone back next year. Now we have a little taste of what it feels like to lose,” said Green, who led Harlan to its first 13th Region title in 1987.
Harlan will take a 27-4 record into the state tournament and will play 3rd Region champ Owensboro Catholic on Thursday at 8 p.m. in the state tournament at Northern Kentucky University, the Lady Dragons’ first trip to the Sweet Sixteen since 1999. Harlan lost 52-32 to Owensboro Catholic in the All “A” Classic state semifinals in late January.
“It feels good to win with the people I love the most. We’ve been here forever, and I love to watch everybody enjoy this,” tournament most valuable player Jordan Brock said. “We knew we had to stay in a dogfight and play as a team.”
Brock scored 16 points and sophomore forward Mackenzie King added 10 for the Lady Dragons, who were limited to 37 percent shooting (nine of 24) in the first half by Harlan County’s 2-3 zone.
“It was spread out, and we hadn’t seen it,” Akal said. “I told our guards they just had to play the game. There aren’t Xs and Os I can draw up to fix this. I told them to take their time and play the game like they know how. Mackenzie got us some baskets by catching it in the lane and getting to the basket. We got a little momentum at that point.”
“I thought we had a good gameplan, and we got the stops we wanted,” Green said. “We missed some free throws and layups.”
After several lead changes in a first quarter that ended with Harlan up 10-8 on a Brooklyn Massingill 3-pointer, Harlan County had its chance to take control in the second quarter. A 3-pointer by Blair Green and outback by Breann Turner gave the Lady Bears a 17-14 in the midst of almost three-minute scoring drought by Harlan.
Harlan County had a scoring drought of its own after Turner’s basket at the four-minute mark. A three-point play by Brock sparked a 7-0 run by Harlan to close the half as the Lady Dragons led 21-17 at the break.
The Lady Bears grabbed the momentum again to start the second half as Kaylea Gross scored inside and Phebe McHargue hit a 3-pointer after HCHS forced a turnover with its press. Gross and Lainey Cox added baskets as HCHS took a 27-24 with 4:40 left in the third quarter.
Harlan County went cold again at that point as Harlan went on a 9-3 run, sparked by Taylor Simpson’s 3-pointer, to take a 33-30 lead into the fourth quarter.
“That was a big shot,” said Akal.
“We had a good run with our press, but we didn’t want to use it that much,” Green said. “We were supposed to drop out of it that point, but we didn’t do it quickly enough. We had our chances to win, but we missed some free throws and hung our heads a little.”
Brock had a steal and layup to start the final period. Green scored inside to pull Harlan County within three, but it was the only field goal of the period for the Lady Bears as Harlan took control with a 6-0 run on two baskets by King and one by Emma Bianchi.
With a nine-point lead, Akal turned the game over to Brock and Massingill and his guards, as usual, made a comeback all but impossible with their strong an steady ball handling.
“I told them in the third quarter that if we could get up by seven or eight in the fourth quarter, we’d go to our four-minute offense with about eight minutes to go,” Akal said. “I told Jordan we’d pull them out of that if we can. Then they went to a triangle-and-two, which helped us a little. We didn’t have to worry about the trap and allowed Jordan to get in one-on-one situations.”
Gross and Green each scored 12 points to lead the Lady Bears, who shot 34 percent (14 of 41) for the game.
After suffering through the first losing season in program history last year, the Lady Bears were among the region’s most improved teams this year despite starting three freshmen and two sophomores and losing two key players to season-ending injuries. Harlan County finished 23-9 overall, beat four regional championship teams from a year ago and was undefeated against 13th Region competition other than the Lady Dragons.
“We’ve had a great season and have nothing to be ashamed of after losing to a very good Harlan team,” Green said. “I’m proud of them and proud of my kids, too. I’m glad someone from Harlan County is getting to go to the state tournament.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134