HARLAN — An exciting postseason ride for the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets came to an end on Friday as Clay County used an 8-0 run near the midpoint of the fourth quarter to separate and went on to a 82-70 win in the semifinals of the 13th Region Tournament at Harlan County.
MHS gave the Tigers all they wanted for three and a half quarters. The score was tied at 37 at the half and the Jackets held a 54-52 lead with ten seconds left in the third quarter.
“I’ve got to give credit to my guys, they battled hard and I feel like they represented us well,” Jacket coach Russell Thompson said. “They showed the desire and the will to get the win tonight, it’s just that we hit a slump for about two minutes where the shots didn’t fall and Clay had guys step up and hit shots during that time. But it was nip and tuck all the way through.”
Clay County was led by sophomore point guard Tyler McDaniel with 27 points, including an 8-for-8 effort from the free throw line in the fourth quarter. Senior Jarrod Rice finished with 22 points, Stephon Lyttle added 13 and Marty Bowling nine.
Junior guard Donnie Foister led Middlesboro with 22 points while senior Michael Wilson hit five 3-pointers on his way to 19 points and junior Austin Poindexter added nine off the bench.
Lyttle made one of the biggest plays of the game at the end of the third quarter. Foister had just hit a free throw to give Middlesboro that 54-52 lead with 10 seconds to go. McDaniel got down the court and hit a jumper to tie it at the four second mark and then Lyttle made a leaping steal of a hurried inbounds pass and laid the ball in at the buzzer to give the Tigers the lead going into the fourth quarter.
“Stephon kind of struggled there for the first two or three quarters, but he’s a good ball player. I think that play there at the end of the third quarter got him a little bit of confidence,” Clay coach Robert Marcum said. “Marty Bowling battled foul trouble. We didn’t play the best game of basketball we’ve ever played, but we found a way to win it. That’s what you do with a bunch of seniors.”
Wilson hit a free throw early in the fourth to bring Middlesboro within one, but the Jackets missed their next seven shots from the field and Clay eventually took advantage with an 8-0 run.
Lyttle started it with a little jumper over Middlesboro’s Zach Riddle. McDaniel hit two free throws and Kody Reed one before Rice knocked down his third 3-pointer of the night to give the Tigers a 64-55 lead with 4:00 to play.
“They’re an athletic club and they had guys step up. Rice really stepped up and made some big baskets when we were trying to cut off McDaniel and Reed,” Thompson said.
The Jackets got 3-pointers from Foister and Wilson to close within 66-61 with 3:27 to play. But Lyttle answered with a basket and Middlesboro misfired on threes on their next two possessions. Two more free throws from McDaniel pushed the lead to 71-61 with 2:02 to go and Middlesboro never got closer than eight the rest of the way.
“Middlesoro played a good ballgame, they shot 50-percent from the field in the first half. We had played them over there on their senior night (a 30-point Clay win) and this was a different team,” Marcum said. “They came down and were penetrating the ball real well, but we finally got some contain and made them shoot some threes in the second half and I think that made the difference. They were getting in the gaps on us too much and breaking our defense down.”
It was a frustrating night for Middlesboro senior guard Blake Davis. He finished with six points, all in the first half, and seemed to be on the wrong end of several 50-50 calls and fouled out with 4:35 to play. Davis has been kind of the x-factor for the Jackets and has come up big in their biggest wins of the season. He scored 22 in Monday’s first round win over Corbin and 17 in Middlesboro’s win over Bell County in the district semifinals. Davis also came up with three clutch steals and a big 3-pointer late in the Jackets win over Pineville in the 13th Region All ‘A’ championship game.
Thompson said he was missed down the stretch on Friday.
“I felt like we were struggling to score at that time so I went with him and he got maybe one trip down the floor and picked up another cheap foul when a guy spun into him,” he said. “It really put a damper on what we wanted to do offensively and defensively because Blake has been a big contributor to what we’ve done in the postseason. Anybody who has watched us play knows that. That took away a big piece of our puzzle.”
The Tigers (25-6) earn their second straight trip to the regional championship game, they lost in overtime to North Laurel last season. Clay will take on host Harlan County tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s going to be exciting. We had that opportunity last year but just came up two points short in overtime. Sometimes it takes years before you have that opportunity again. I told the boys we’re blessed to have another shot at it,” Marcum said before knowing who his opponent would be. “We’re going to be tired but we can rest for a long time after the game. They’re going to be excited and ready to go.”
Middlesboro closes the season with a record of 16-14, it’s the first time MHS has had consecutive winning seasons since 1983. The Jackets are on quite a trajectory in Thompson’s three seasons as coach. They went 3-21 that first season, then won 18 games and a 52nd District championship last year. This season they captured that regional All “A” championship and made it all the way to the 13th Region semifinals.
Seniors Wilson, Riddle, Derek Smith and Davis have been part of the program since their freshman year when they won just four games. Boone Bowling transferred in during Thompson’s first season and has joined them in making quite a turnaround.
“I can’t say enough about our seniors and what they’ve done for our program. I’m just really proud and feel really blessed to have been able to work with them for three years,” Thompson said. “(Last year) we had the biggest turnaround in the state and the biggest in school history. On top of that they’ve won a 52nd District championship, they won the 13th Region All ‘A’ for the first time in school history.
“That shows you how far they’ve taken it and what they’ve done for our school and our team and our program. They are fighters, they’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of great character. They’ve got good families and support. They’ve been able to take this program further than anyone would have thought and I believe there’s no end to what they’ll be able to accomplish in their lives beyond high school.”
— — —
Clay County…16…21…19…26 — 82
Middlesboro…14…23…17…16 — 70
CLAY COUNTY (82): Tyler McDaniel 27, Jarrod Rice 22, Stephon Lyttle 13, Marty Bowling 9, Kody Reed 7, Wes Wolfe 2, Blake Rojas 2, Blake Smith 0, Travis Smith 0, Christopher McNeal 0, Ryan Holland 0.
MIDDLESBORO (70): Donnie Foister 22, Michael Wilson 19, Zach Riddle 6, Derek Smith 4, Boone Bowling 2, Austin Poindexter 9, Blake Davis 6.