HIGHLAND HEIGHTS — Overcoming a 7-0 deficit to start a state tournament game is tough enough. Overcoming that and then a 14-2 Owensboro Catholic run to start the second quarter proved to be too much for the Harlan Lady Dragons, who fell 69-49 to the Lady Aces on Thursday night in the first round of the state tournament at Northern Kentucky University.
“This is a different position for us. Besides the time we played them earlier (a 52-32 loss in the state All “A” Classic), we’ve always been the hunter instead of the hunted,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “Every time we made a run, they got a loose ball or a rebound or we turned the ball over.”
Senior guard Mikayla Berry poured in 26 points to lead the 31-5 Lady Aces, champions of the 3rd Region. Senior guard Annabel Moore and senior forward Caroline Hayden contributed 15 and 13 points, respectively.
Junior guard Jordan Brock led Harlan (27-5) with 19 points. Sophomore forward Mackenzie King added 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds. Sophomore forward Brandi Haywood came off the bench to contribute 10 points.
Both teams had 19 field goals for the game as the Lady Aces won at the line, hitting 26 of 38 free throws, compared to seven of eight for Harlan.
“We have to get more physical. We allowed them to outmuscle us too much, and that’s normally how it’s called here,” Owensboro Catholic coach Michael Robertson said. “We have to be ready for that.”
The Lady Dragons appeared nervous early in their first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1999, falling behind 7-0. Hayden had two baskets and Moore hit a 3-pointer as Harlan turned the ball over three times in the opening minute.
Just like in their previous matchup, Harlan struggled against Owensboro Catholic’s 2-2-1 press.
“We had some unforced errors, not so much what they did, but when we turned it over they scored or went to the free throw line,” Akal said. “You’re not going to beat one of the best teams in the state when they shoot 18 free throws in the first half and you shoot zero.”
Harlan battled back after a timeout, pulling even at 9-9 as Brooklyn Massingill hit a 3-pointer and Brock and Haywood added field goals.
“We knew we had to stay in a dogfight,” Brock said. “I was really proud of the way the girls who came off the bench competed. That kept us in it, because we were in foul trouble.”
“I may have overthought. I wanted to change up the press, but I probably should have stayed with it,” Robertson said. “I think it was frustrating them a little. We got out of position, gave them some easy shots and let them get back in the game.”
Owensboro Catholic closed the quarter with a 5-0 run, capped by Moore’s length of the court drive for a layup to put the Lady Aces up 14-9.
The Lady Aces pulled away with a 14-2 run to start the second quarter, led by Berry, Hayden and Moore, building a 28-11 lead with 3:52 left in the half. Three baskets by Brock helped Harlan cut the deficit to 33-20 by halftime.
“I challenged them at halftime to come out and match their intensity. They play hard,” Robertson said. “They were very physical with us and took us out of what we want to do. Once we calmed down and relaxed, we played a lot better.”
Fouls proved to a huge factor in the first half as Harlan had three with three fouls by halftime. The Lady Aces hit 12 of 18 at the line, while Harlan did not shoot a free throw.
Harlan was still within 13 when Owensboro Catholic put the game away with a 13-0 run, led by Berry with four free throws, a basket and 3-pointer. Brock did her best to keep Harlan in the game as she had a basket and 3-pointer, but the Lady Dragons trailed 55-33 after three quarters.
With three Harlan starters scoring only two points each, Haywood provided a lift off the bench as he hit five of five shots and pulled six rebounds, second only to Mackenzie King.
“I was watching her warm up before the game, and she wasn’t missing any shots,” Akal said. “She has improved over the course of the season. That was a bright spot to see her play like that.”
Harlan picked up the pressure in the fourth quarter and fought back to within 18 on a basket by Haywood, but the Lady Aces were able to beat the press several times for layups and led by as many as 23 points.
“We gave up too many free throws and too many transition buckets, things we talked about before the game,” Akal said. “We got ourselves in foul trouble, and they just whipped us on the boards in the second half.”
The game marked the end of Massingill and Katie King’s high school careers.”
“This is the goal. This is where we wanted to be,” said Massingill, who finished her high school career with over 2,000 points scored. “We accomplished a lot.”
“I feel the same way, it just stinks to go out like this,” King said. “We competed, but we could have played a lot better.”
“Only one team ends the season with a smile on their face, but I told them what they accomplished over their careers defines them, not just this one game,” Akal said. “Those two mean a lot to me. They’ve worked very hard and are born leaders. They are prepared now for life. They’ve learned a lot.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134