HARLAN — For the first time since 2006 the Bell County Lady Cats are 52nd District champions.
Bell County jumped out to an 11-point lead in the first quarter and held on late by hitting 16 of 20 free throws in the fourth quarter as they knocked off Harlan County, 54-48, in Friday’s championship game.
“It’s a great feeling. It’s been seven or eight years and these girls have been through so much. We’ve been in it the last few years and to finally pull one out is a big thing for us and a big thing for our program,” said Lady Cat coach David Teague. “I’m proud of these girls. They’ve battled and they’ve worked hard and I couldn’t be more pleased for them.”
Sophomore guard Maci Morris scored 26 points to lead the Lady Cats and was named the tournaments most valuable player. She also became Bell County’s all-time leading scorer during the win. Jess Sanders added 17 points while Morgan Garnett finished with six and Paige Robbins five.
Robbins, the team’s only senior starter, shared a tearful hug with her teammates after the final buzzer sounded.
“I’ve played with these girls since I was in the 8th grade and I knew if I wanted to win with anybody it was these girls. So it meant a lot to me,” she said, adding that the Lady Cats aren’t done yet. “We had three goals at the beginning of the season. We wanted to win 20 games, win a district title and a regional title. We had got our 20 wins and we knew we had to win tonight. We’re planning to go on and win the region.”
Harlan County was led by Kaitlyn Stittums with 15 points while Madison Cornett added 10 and Lauren Lee nine. Leading scorer Brooklyn Massengill was held to eight points in the game.
It was defense and offensive efficiency that helped the Lady Cats build their early lead. Harlan County missed their first three shots from the field while Bell hit their first three. A 3-pointer from Sanders put the Lady Cats on top 6-3 at the 4:26 mark of the first quarter and they led the rest of the way.
The Lady Bears hit just two of nine shots in the first period while Bell hit four of their six shots.
“We worked our tail off. Morgan Garnett is unreal with her defensive effort. She holds Ledford to two points the other night and holds Massengill to (eight) tonight,” Teague said. “Just a tremendous effort to hold those two down in the tournament and we had to have that.”
The Lady Cats also hit seven of ten free throws in the period as Morris, Sanders and Garnett were able to draw fouls while driving to the basket. Morris scored ten of her points in the first and the lead grew to 16-5.
“I felt like they would come out and play us some zone and if they went man we wanted to keep attacking,” Teague said. Attack, attack and not settle for those jumpers. I don’t know how many threes we shot tonight, but I guarantee it was a season low. The game plan we had, the girls executed it tremendously.”
Harlan County closed to within 17-14 after a transition basket from Lee and a 3 from Massengill with 3:22 to play in the half. Sanders hit a pair of free throws and then drove the lane for a layup to give the Lady Cats some breathing room. Two free throws from Morris put Bell up 23-16 going into the half.
“I think we ended up winning a couple of quarters after that. It was just that initial quarter where we were timid and against a good team,” said Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan. “We have to quit waiting until the fourth quarter. We played not to lose early. I think we were a little intimidated.”
Both teams picked up the offensive pace in the third quarter. Cornett scored six points for the Harlan County and Lee added five, but Bell got five from Morris and four from Robbins and maintained a 36-29 lead after three quarters.
“Lord, I knew it was going to be a dogfight. I said the other night it was going to be and it was. We were up seven at halftime and I knew they weren’t going to quit,” Teague added. “I told (my team) we had to meet the intensity that Harlan County brought and they did.”
The Lady Bears had one run left in them. Down eight with 2:23 to play, Stittums drove in for a layup and then hit a jumper to cut the lead to 46-42. Four free throws from Stittums around a Bell turnover had the Bears within 48-46 with 1:04 to play. Stittums scored twelve of her points in the final period.
“I was really proud of the way she attacked the basket, and playing through three of four fouls there at the end. She was in foul trouble early, but she played through it,” Nolan said.
Morris, Garnett and Sanders all went two-for-two from the line over the next three possession while the Lady Bears missed a pair of 3s and the Lady Cats went on to win by six.
Bell County hit 16 of 20 free throws in the fourth quarter and made 31 of 43 in the game.
“They extended that pressure and we knew there was going to be fouls, but we made them when we needed to. I give those girls credit, Jess, Morgan and Maci made those free throws and that’s what it takes,” Teague said.