Neither team looked especially sharp in what turned into a defensive struggle with Knox Central leading from the second quarter on to claim a 79-71 victory.
The Panthers struggled with turnover problems and endured a nearly five-minute scoreless stretch in the third quarter. The host Yellow Jackets, meanwhile never found the range from deep, hitting just four 3-point shots, well below their season average of 10 per game.
"That right there shows something about our defensive grit," said Knox Central coach Brandon Elam. "I wanted to see some defensive grit and some determination. And when you don't score for over four minutes and your lead never gets under four, that's pretty good on the defensive end.
"When we've struggled this year, it's been on the offensive end. We have trouble taking care of the basketball and putting it in the hole. And that was our struggle again."
"Shots didn't fall and we didn't take it to the basket like we wanted to," said Middlesboro coach Ed Jones. "We let them keep us too far out on the floor when we were running our offense. I think offensively we weren't pushing the ball down the floor at all."
Middlesboro senior Cecil Hoskins scored the Jackets' first six points and the Jackets led 14-8 after back-to-back baskets inside by Josh Treece as Middlesboro went inside early to good effect.
Knox Central closed the first period with an 11-3 run to lead 21-19.
Jacob Scalf and Nick Jordan opened the second frame with consecutive baskets, and Marcus McKeehan drained a 3-pointer with six minutes to play as the Panthers' lead grew to nine.
Justin Owens, who transferred from Middlesboro following last season, drained a 3-pointer late to give the Panthers a 39-34 lead at the half.
McKeehan, who scored just eight points in the first half, opened the third period with seven straight as Knox opened its lead to 46-34 with 6:39 to play.
Knox Central didn't hit another field goal for 5:19 and tallied just one point, a Lyde Engle free throw to break a 4:43 scoreless drought.
But when McKeehan hit a 3 with 1:21 to play, Knox Central still held the advantage, leading 50-42.
During Knox' drought, Middlesboro missed six straight free throws and managed just eight points, trimming the lead to five and a Stuart Miller jumper.
"They turned the ball over a lot, but every time they did we didn't execute," said Jones. "In the fourth quarter alone, according to our stats, we were 7-of-23 and four of them were layups."
"You have to give a lot of credit to Middlesboro," said Elam. "They really laced them up and got after it when they got down. When Stuart Miller sees that 'Central' on our jerseys, he seems to get hot, but he does that against a lot of people. He's an awful fine basketball player and a fine kid."
Hoskins, who finished with 16 points, scored twice in the final 30 seconds to cut Knox Central's lead to 52-46 heading into the fourth quarter.
Miller, who scored just nine points in the first three quarters combined, began to heat up in the fourth, pouring in 20 of his game-high 29 points. The junior hit consecutive shots to cut the margin to 57-54 with 5:27 to play, but Doug Cobb drained a big 3-pointer from the wing to keep the Jackets at bay.
Middlesboro cut Knox Central's lead to four on two occasions in the period, the second time on a pair of Miller free throws with 3:09 to play. But the Panthers responded behind McKeehan, who reeled off six straight in a 20-second span. The junior guard finished with a team-high 25 points. Jordan added 21.
Miller and Bart Short converted on back-to-back layups to cut the lead back to four with two minutes to play, but Cobb hit his second 3 of the period and Scalf added a three-point play in the final minute to hold off the Jackets.
"It's 'Jekyl and Hyde' with us to the max," said Elam. "We go four minutes without scoring and then we make some shots like we made. And a couple of those were bad shots that we were fortunate to go down because it could have changed the outcome of the game."
Miller had all but six of Middlesboro's fourth-quarter points. Mayes added 10, but struggled from the field, finishing without a 3-point basket. He came into the game averaging more than three a game.
Knox Central (6-13) faces a tough test today, visiting state-power South Laurel Middlesboro (10-12) will visit Whitley County on Tuesday.
In the opening game Friday, the Middlesboro Lady Jackets flexed its muscle inside and routed the Lady Panthers 66-37.
Freshman forward Brooklynn Jimison had a career night, pouring in a game-high 24 points. She was unstoppable under the basket hitting 11 field goals, nearly doubling Knox Central's team field goal total of seven.
More than half of Knox Central's points came at the free throw line as the Lady Panthers were 20-31 from the stripe.
Wendi Messer was Knox Central's only offensive threat, scoring 22 points on the night and hitting five of the seven field goals.
Junior forward Mary Flanary joined in Jimison's dominance underneath, finishing with 13 points. Shaleesha Coleman added 12.
Guards Emily Osborne and Sophie Robinson scored nine and eight points, respectively, to round out the Lady Jackets' balanced scoring.
Middlesboro (11-8) will vie for its fifth straight win Tuesday at Whitley County. Knox Central (3-18) will play host to Cordia today.
Knox Central 8 13 6 10 - 37
Middlesboro 13 21 16 16 - 66
KNOX CENTRAL (3-18) - Wendi Messer 22, Sam Washam 4, Kaysay Mills 3, Ashley Sizemore 2, Terra Tuggle 2, Tasha Brown 2, Medina Jackson 2.
MIDDLESBORO (11-8) - Brooklynn Jimison 24, Mary Flanary 13, Shaleesha Coleman 12, Emily Osborne 9, Sophie Robinson 8.
Knox Central 21 18 13 27 - 79
Middlesboro 19 15 12 26 - 72
KNOX CENTRAL (6-13) - Marcus McKeehan 25, Nick Jordan 21, Doug Cobb 8, Jacob Scalf 9, Lyde Engle 5, Justin Owens 5, Corey Williamson 4, Paul Hembree 2.
MIDDLESBORO (10-12) - Staurt Miller 29, Cecil Hoskins 16, Joe Mayes 10, Bart Short 6, Josh Treece 4, Will Harrison 4, Daniel Griffin 3.