Monday night that just wasn't enough to conquer the size and athleticsm of North Laurel. The Jaguars held off a late Bell rally an pulled out a 59-50 win in the opening game of the 13th Region Tournament at Clay County High School.
The North Laurel lineup featured four seniors and they enjoyed a height advantage at every position.
Still, Bell controlled the tempo early. The Bobcats got two baskets from senior point guard Jeremy Sanders and a 3-pointer from freshman Shanta Zachery as they pulled out to an 8-3 lead in the game's first five minutes.
Junior forward Ryan Whitaker hit a short jumper and Sanders added a 3 to push the Bobcat lead back to 5 with 1:57 to go in the quarter.
The Jaguars got their transition game going toward the end of the quarter. Senior guard Billy Carson scored on three drives to the basket and hit a 3 as North Laurel went on an 11-0 spurt to take a 19-13 lead with 5:55 to play in the second period.
Bell's outside shots were not falling and the Jags were coming away with nearly every rebound.
North Laurel center Shawn Asher, a 6-foot-5 junior, was unstoppable on the boards. He finished with 17 rebounds to go along with 13 points. Overall, the Bobcats were outrebounded 35-20 and that proved to be the game's key statistic.
The Jaguars owned a 12-3 advantage on the boards in the second period as they stretched their lead to 30-22 by halftime.
“We hadn't given up an offensive rebound at halftime, and that's outstanding because they are athletic and really go to the offensive glass,” North Laurel coach Jim Conway said. “In all the tapes and films that we saw of them, that was one of the keys.”
“The first half especially, they whupped us pretty bad on the boards,” Bell coach Eddie Whitaker said. “We just didn't play very hard or very well. We're not a big team, but typically we work hard enough to get the job done on the boards.”
A three-point play by Carson and a basket by Asher gave North Laurel their biggest lead, 35-23, with 6:14 to play in the third.
Whitaker made a pair of free throws, then Zachery got a steal on the inbounds play. He passed back to Whitaker, who's layup cut the lead to eight.
After a North Laurel basket, eighth-grader Josh Whitaker hit 3-pointer to bring Bell to within seven, 37-30. Ryan Whitaker stole the inbounds pass and laid it in to make it a five-point game with 4:15 to go in the third.
The Bobcats, alternating between a full-court press and a half-court trap, forced four more turnovers in the quarter, but were only able to convert a layup by Sanders and two free throws from Ryan Whitaker.
A Justin Howard 3-pointer near the end of the third pushed the North lead back to seven, 43-36.
Before the quarter ended Josh Whitaker drew a charge from Carson. It was the fourth foul on the Jaguar's leading scorer and sent to the bench.
A layup by Jordan Turner got Bell back within five, but North Laurel senior point guard Shanade Allen keyed a 6-0 run. He made a jumper, then drove hard toward the basket and dished the ball to Asher for a layup. He drove in for a layup of his own that put the Jags up 49-38 with 5:06 to play.
Josh Whitaker hit 3 to keep Bell in it and the Bobcats pressure forced three turnovers over the next 3-plus minutes, but their only points were a pair of Ryan Whitaker free throws.
With the score 49-43, Ryan misfired on a 3-point attempt with 1:31 to play and the ball went out of bounds to North Laurel. This time Carson got loose behind the press, caught a long pass and laid the ball in to make to 51-43.
Josh Whitaker came down and hit another 3, but the Jags were able to run some time off the clock and hit their free throws as they held on for the 59-50 win.
Carson scored 19 and Howard added 14 to pace North (14-15).
Whitaker and Sanders led Bell (22-8) with 19 and 17 points, respectively. The game marked the end of Sanders' high school career. A four-year starter at point guard, Sanders was the only senior on Bell's roster.
“Sometimes it hurts in these tournaments when you've just got one senior,” coach Whitaker said. “Seniors seem to play hard to try to stay alive.”
Despite the loss, Whitaker said he was pleased with the effort his players put forth this season. The team won 20 games in the regular season and brought home a ninth straight district title despite leading scorer Ryan Whitaker missing 17 games with a broken ankle and junior forward Trey Goins missing the district tournament with a wrist injury.
“I feel positive that they've overachieved this season,” he said. “I feel like they stepped up and performed well in a lot of big situations. I just hate that we ended on a note where we didn't play well.”
Sanders took the loss hard and Whitaker kept his team in the locker for quite a while after the game.
“I told him he's gained the utmost respect from me. He's been my rock as a player for four years,” Whitaker said of Sanders. “He's given me a whole lot of wins and his leadership this year probably allowed us to have the season we've had.”
North Laurel will play county rival South Laurel in the opening semifinal game on Friday at 6 p.m. The defending state champion Cardinals had no trouble storming past Lynn Camp 97-71 in last night's second game.
The first round of the tournament concludes today with Cawood taking on Barbourville and Clay County playing host to Corbin.
John Henson of the Harlan Daily Enterprise contributed to this story.