BAXTER — The boys’ 13th Region Tournament starts on Monday at Harlan County High School with Middlesboro takng on Corbin in the first game at 6:15 p.m.
Coach Russell Thompson said he wasn’t overly concerned with where his Yellow Jackets, the 52nd District runner-up, fit into the draw.
“You just have to prepare the best you can and play the teams you have to play in order to get to the championship game. If you get to that game anything can happen,” he said. “You saw where North Laurel came out as a (district) runner up last year and they were able to win the tournament so anything is possible at this point.”
The Redhounds won the regular season meeting between the teams, 68-51 in Corbin. But that game came during Middlesboro’s five-game losing streak just after Christmas and the Jackets have grown a lot as a team since then.
“I think they’ve learned not to give up on each other. We were down pretty heavily in the first round of the district against Bell County and we were able to battle back and pull out a win there to advance. They came together and realized that when they keep fighting, good things can happen,” Thompson said.
Corbin has a solid big man in senior center Robbie Igo and several players that can get hot from long range in seniors Hunter Grubb and Kaleb Maguet, junior Kevin Goins and freshman Trevor Hill.
The Jackets counter with five seniors in their main rotation of seven players. Junior guard Donnie Foister and seniors Michael Wilson and Zach Riddle handle most of the scoring for the starting unit while junior Austin Poindexter and senior Blake Davis providing an offensive spark off the bench.
“Corbin is always strong in the regional tournament and we’ll have our work cut out for us on Monday night,” Thompson said. “We’re going to have to challenge their shots. They have a good solid five that can all handle the ball and shoot the ball pretty well. In any tournament you’re going to have to be able to control the glass and rebound well. Hopefully our defense will pay off for us. I feel like we’ve played pretty good defense consistently throughout the year and if we can knock down some shots and hit our free throws we’ll be a competitive team.
“Our kids have been playing well as of late and I feel like we’ve got an opportunity here to make a good run in the tournament.”
Monday’s late game will see the red-hot Clay County Tigers take on Barbourville. Clay’s win streak is up to 12 games after their 64-58 win over North Laurel in the 49th District championship game. Devon Mills gives the Barbourville Tigers a shooter’s chance to pull the upset, but they’ll have a hard time matching up with Clay’s overall athleticism.
Tuesday host Harlan County will try to break through for their first regional tournament win as they go up against South Laurel. The Cardinals feature an explosive backcourt in senior point guard Blake Sanders and sophomore sharp-shooter Zac Baxter. The Black Bears have a balanced, senior-dominated lineup led by play-making point guard Tyler Brewer. Chad Masengill and Alex Sergent give Harlan County a pair of threats on the wings while Aaron Caldwell and sophomore Tyler Miller patrol the paint.
“You have to play somebody. They are playing well right now. We just have to be ready to play. When it comes this time of the year you can’t have a preference on who you would rather play, because if they weren’t pretty good they wouldn’t be here,” said Harlan County coach Mike Jones. “We are just going to have to take it one game at a time. Our kids have had the goal all along to win this thing, and in order to do that you have to win that first game.”
Jones said he hopes his team will receive a boost from playing in front of the home crowd.
“I thought our crowd was really good down in the district. Our student section was really good. We want to get our crowd here and try to take advantage of this thing being on our home floor,” he said. “I thought that was really a big boost for us down there in the district tournament, and I think that will be very important.”
Perhaps the most intriguing first-round game comes in Tuesday’s late contest between Knox Central and defending champ North Laurel.
North has yet to go on a real hot streak this season, but they were able to pull out an overtime over Jackson County to get back to the regional tournament to try and defend their title. The Jags’ offense revolves around the inside-outside combo of center Jake Allen and guard Marcus Carson and they tend to thrive in the halfcourt game that is commonly played in the tournament.
The Panthers have been bolstered late in the season by the returns of big freshman forward Chad Marsee and sophomore guard Matthew Barger. With those two joining seniors Tobie Merida and Jacob Wilburn and sophomores Jeffrey Adams and Nathan Cole, Knox rolled through the 51st District Tournament and is looking like a threat to win the region.
North was able to beat Knox Central 63-47 in the regular season finale.
“North Laurel beat us handily right at the end of the season. Probably the brightest point looking at it from a coach’s standpoint is we should have our players’ attention because they got us pretty good,” Panther coach Brian Evans said. “Each team that we could have gotten has their own unique challenges and their strong and weak points. We’re happy to be here and just hope we can continue to play well.”
The complete boys’ draw looks like this:
Corbin (24-6) vs. Middlesboro (15-13), 6:15 p.m.
Clay County (23-6) vs. Barbourville (19-11), 7:45 p.m.
Harlan County (23-7) vs. South Laurel (13-16), 6: 15 p.m.
Knox Central (17-13) vs. North Laurel (15-15), 7:45 p.m.
Corbin-Middlesboro winner vs. Clay Co.-Barbourville winner, 6:15 p.m.
Harlan Co.-South Laurel winner vs. Knox Central-North Laurel winner, 7:45 p.m.
Championship game, 7:30 p.m.