But in a game Middlesboro had every reason to lose, the Jackets finally found away to get over the hump against its arch-rival and came away with a 74-71 victory, the Jackets first win over Bell in 15 tries.
Middlesboro came into the game mired in an eight-game losing streak and had watched Bell turn a late two-point lead into a 1-point win on Log Mountain earlier this year.
"It was a big win for two reasons," said Middlesboro coach Ed Jones, who picked up his first career win over the Bobcats, "Number one, we had eight straight losses coming in. It didn't matter who we were playing, to get a win was good. And this was a rivalry game and I think we brought the rivalry back when we got here four years ago playing them close. I told the kids we need a win to make the rivalry even better."
Bell County coach Eddie Whitaker was distressed that he saw the Jackets playing more determined that the Bobcats down the stretch.
"I thought the whole game Middlesboro wanted to win a lot more than we did," he said. "It didn't seem like we had the focus or the intensity or the execution to win."
Bell led 64-59 with just over five minutes to play, but Middlesboro tied the game at 66-66 on a Stuart Miller 3-pointer with 2:22 remaining. Following a Bobcat turnover, one of five in the final four minutes, Joe Mayes, who had missed six of seven shots in the fourth quarter, drained a 3-pointer form the wing to give the Jackets the lead.
Larry Helton answered with a trey for Bell County and gave the Bobcats the lead with a layup seconds later.
Miller missed on a three with a minute to play, but Casey Hatmaker grabbed the offensive rebound and Miller drew a foul, sinking both free throws to tie the game at 71-71 with 54 seconds to play.
Ryan Whitaker missed a short jumper in the lane on Bell's end and Cecil Hoskins pulled down the rebound. Following a time-out, the Jackets cleared the lane, isolating Miller at the top of the key. But just as the talented junior began to make his drive, Helton came with a double-team, stripping the ball away with under 10 seconds to play.
But Helton's pocket was picked in the lane by Hoskins, who fired the ball upcourt to Hatmaker. The sophomore point guard passed up an open jumper, driving to the basket as the clock ticked down. His layup was blocked by Brent Slusher, but an intention foul was called.
Hatmaker calmly sank the free throw with five seconds on the clock to give Middlesboro a 72-71 lead. He missed the second, but Middlesboro had possession out of bounds as a result of the intentional foul.
Hoskins took the inbound pass and was quickly fouled. The Jackets' only senior, and fiery emotional leader, sank both free throws to make it a three-point lead with four seconds remaining.
Sanders' halfcourt heave at the buzzer was long, setting off a wild celebration for the home team.
"I was happy for (Hoskins)," said Jones. "It's his senior year and first year starting and he's an emotional leader for us."
"You always hope to take something away from a loss," said Whitaker. "I would have liked for it to have meant a little more to the kids. We got outplayed and outhustled and outphysicaled. They wanted the game more than we did."
After watching Miller set a new single-game school record with 46 points in the loss earlier this season, the Jackets went with a more balanced attack Friday as Miller and Mayes led Middlesboro with 22 points apiece. Hatmaker added 18. The trio combined for 11 3-pointers. Miller also pulled down a team-high eight rebounds.
Helton paced Bell with 25 points, hitting 8-of-14 from the field. Sanders added 15 points while Slusher finished with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Bell jumped out to a 17-3 lead as Helton hit his first four shots, including three 3-pointers. But Middlesboro rallied behind Hatmaker and junior forward Bart Short to cut the lead to 21-17 after one period.
Neither Helton or Miller, the teams' leading scorers, attempted a shot in the second frame as Helton spent much of the time on the bench with two fouls. Miller watched his teammates go 8-of-10 from the field, including a 4-for-4, 10-point performance from Mayes to take a 37-36 lead into the break.
Middlesboro opened the third quarter with a 10-2 run, featuring a 3 each by Miller and Hatmaker, but Bell roared back behind Helton, who broke a 14-minute personal scoreless streak with a pair of free throws at the 4:25 mark, and poured in nine in the rest of the period to cut the Jackets' lead to 57-56 heading into the final frame.
Middlesboro (4-8) enjoyed the victory in just its second home game of the season. The Jackets will play host to Cumberland on Tuesday. Bell County (6-4) hosts Corbin on Tuesday.
Bell County 21 15 20 15 - 71
Middlesboro 17 20 20 17 - 74
BELL COUNTY (6-4) - Jeremy Sanders 15, Larry Helton 25, Ryan Whitaker 7, John Rogers 5, Brent Slusher 14, Steven Hunter 5.
MIDDLESBORO (4-8) - Casey Hatmaker 18, Stuart Miller 22, Joe Mayes 22, Cecil Hoskins 8, Bart Short 4.