Harlan County and Harlan will meet again, for the fourth time this year and for the second straight year in the 13th Region Tournament finals after both knocked off Laurel County teams on Friday in the semifinals. Harlan County defeated North Laurel 60-45 in the opening semifinal and Harlan downed South Laurel 54-47 in the nightcap.
The two county rivals will meet on Saturday at 7 p.m. with the winner earning a ticket to the state tournament next week at Northern Kentucky University. Harlan County won all three previous meetings against the Lady Dragons, who won four of five games against HCHS last year, including the 13th Region Tournament championship game
After falling to Harlan in last year’s 13th Region Tournament finals, Harlan County coach Debbie Green said the Lady Bears wanted another chance in 2017.
The Lady Bears earned that opportunity on Friday night.
“We just wanted a chance. Whatever happens, happens,” Green said. “You just hope you get a little luck and the stars align for you.”
Harlan County (28-2) followed a familiar pattern to its 25th straight win as junior guard Blair Green scored 19 points and junior center Kaylea Gross added 15. The Lady Bears also benefited from another big game by sophomore forward Breann Turner, who scored eight points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
“Our kids have confidence and they have confidence in Blair and Kaylea,” Green said. “They know they will find a way to get open.”
North Laurel (22-12) was led by junior guard Hannah Lawson with 18 points and freshman guard Gracie Jervis with 17.
The Lady Jaguars were limited to 31 percent shooting (15 of 49) for the game.
“We know what they like and we did a good job getting out on shooters,” Green said. “Our guards may not look very big, but I felt they were strong than their guards. We wanted to contain and not jump out on them and let them get by us.
“Breen (Turner) did a great job of communicating on the back line of our defense. I think we have a really smart group. They know what to do. They are very focused.”
“We didn’t have a normal North Laurel shooting game. I take pride in our shooting,” North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan said. “I think our youth showed a little tonight. We were a little hesitant to shoot. I thought we missed (junior guard) Madison Sheppard tonight.”
Harlan County shot 49 percent (23 of 47) from the field and outrebounded North Laurel 30-25.
“I have no complaints about our defense,” North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan. “Green is a great player, but I thought we gave her about eight of 19 points on baskets in transition due to turnovers. Gross is one of the top three players in the region, and we also did a pretty good job on her. We were just hurt in transition too many times.”
“They are so strong that they can wear you down, even if they don’t block a shot. I thought they were in a little better shape than us. Part of that was my fault. We may have spent a little too much time on game prep. Some of the conditioning problems were on me.”
Harlan County grabbed control early, racing to a 12-2 lead on baskets by Turner, Gross, Phebe McHargue, Rebecca Middleton and Green.
“Quick starts are important for us,” Green said. “I think we were so intense early that we may expended too much energy, nervous energy I guess. North Laurel played us hard and did a good job on Kaylea and Blair.”
North Laurel battled back to within two, at 14-12, by the end of the opening period as Jervis and Isabel Gray.
Harlan County reclaimed control early in the second quarter as Turner hit a jumper and Gross added two baskets. North led by eight late in the first half, going to its spread offense with two minutes left. McHargue stole the ball in the closing seconds and found Green for a layup to give HCHS a 26-16 halftime lead.
Turner had two more baskets in the third quarter as the Lady Bears led by as many as 12 before a basket by Lawson cut the deficit back to 10, at 35-25, going into the final period.
A 3-pointer by McHargue and four straight points by Green helped Harlan County pull away in the fourth quarter. Two straight baskets by Gross gave Harlan County its biggest lead at 17 points.
Defending 13th Region champion Harlan used a 7-2 run late in the fourth quarter to pull away from South Laurel.
With Harlan trailing 42-41 with 3:07 remaining, consecutive 3-pointers by Jordan Brock and Noah Canady put the Lady Dragons ahead for good.
“The big thing is that we’ve given ourselves another chance to win the region championship,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “ South Laurel is a very good team, but I felt like we were able to defend the 3, and then manage to do enough to get the win.”
The seven-point victory sets up a second straight all-Harlan County final. Harlan will now face-off against 52nd District rival Harlan County for the chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
“Harlan County has a great team,” Akal said. “We know we’re going to have our hands full, but hey, we have given ourselves another chance to win the region. The one thing I do like is that it’s going to be an all-52nd District final again. We’re going to have to come ready to play because Harlan County is very good.”
Harlan trailed 13-12 at the end of the first quarter, but led 27-25 at halftime. The Lady Green Dragons faced a 34-33 deficit going into the fourth quarter before rallying to get the win.
Jordan Brock led all scorers with 21 points on 7-of-22 shooting while Mackenzie King scored 17 points and finished with nine rebounds. Ally Collett led South Laurel with 12 points while Amerah Steele finished with 11. Harlan limited South Laurel to only 17-of-53 shooting from the floor, including a 2-of-15 effort from 3-point range.
The Lady Dragons turned in an 18-of-52 shooting effort while going 5-of-21 from 3-point territory.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134