HARLAN — Trailing by as much as eight in the fourth quarter Tuesday, Harlan County appeared to be headed for another first round exit from the 13th Region Tournament. However, the experienced group of Black Bears weren’t ready to call it a season just yet. Harlan County displayed a determination unseen in previous postseasons to rally for a 50-48 victory over South Laurel and into the semifinals.
“Sometime during a tournament like this you have to win a close game. Hopefully, this is the one that will put us over the hump and we can relax and start playing,” said an emotional Harlan County coach Mike Jones. “The kids know what it takes now to be able to win the game. We still have to be consistent for four quarters, instead of just the last six minutes of the game.”
After Zach Baxter scored to make it 43-35 with under six minutes remaining, the Black Bears began to mount a comeback. Tyler Brewer drained a free throw line jumper and Alex Sergent followed with a 3-pointer to close the gap to 43-40 with five minutes remaining. Sophomore Cody Bumgardner then put the crowd on its feet with another trey to tie the game just under the four minute mark.
After a defensive stop, Brewer gave Harlan County its first lead since early in the third quarter when he came off of a screen and hit a jumper with 2:36 left. Harlan County never trailed again. South’s Matthew Slavey tied the game at 48 with a pair of free throws with 44 seconds remaining. Harlan County held for the final shot on the ensuing possession. Brewer had an opportunity to win the game, but his jumper was no good. However, senior Aaron Caldwell grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled on the putback attempt. Caldwell hit both free throws with just three seconds left in the contest.
“We didn’t want this to be our last game. We didn’t want to go out without winning a game at the region,” Caldwell said. “We’re not finished though.”
The Cardinals had an opportunity to tie. Senior Blake Sanders received the inbound pass and called timeout at mid-court with one second left. Brewer then deflected the final inbound pass as time ran out to seal the win.
Harlan County took an early lead before falling behind in the first quarter. Sergent drained a trey to put the Bears up 5-3, but sophomore Zach Baxter answered with a 3-pointer of his own on the opposite to pull South even. Senior Chad Massingill hit a pair of free throws to give Harlan County a four-point lead with three minutes left. However, South closed the period with eight straight points to take a 13-9 advantage. Baxter had eight of his game-high 20- points in the first to put the Cards in front.
“Zach played a great game. Everybody did. We are going to need him and these younger ones to step up next year,” said South Laurel coach Jeff Davis.
Trevor Grubb scored underneath to open the second quarter and push South’s lead to six points, before the Bears made a run. Caldwell and Brewer each scored in the paint and Sergent followed with a trey to put Harlan County back on top. Brewer adjusted in air and scored on a one-hander off the glass with nine seconds left to break a tie at 19. Brewer was fouled on the play and converted the free throw to make it 22-19. South’s Blake Sanders closed the first-half scoring with one-of-two from the free throw line with four seconds remaining to make it 22-20 at the break.
South controlled the third quarter and took a six point advantage into the final period. Slavey, Sanders and Brennan Miller each drained a trey to put the Cards ahead 37-31.
“I thought our kids played composed. They just got so hot shooting the ball in the third quarter. We didn’t do a good job of getting out and defending their shooters or stopping the dribble,” Jones said. “We told the kids we had to have stops, regardless of what we did on offense. Our kids did a good job of that.”
Harlan County (24-7) will face North Laurel in the 13th Region semifinals on Friday. The Black Bears defeated North in both meetings during the season.
South Laurel closes the season at 13-17.
“I didn’t have any questions coming into this game that my guys were ready. They were hungry and they weren’t scared,” Davis said. “I have been with a lot of teams, and this senior class has that no quit, never die attitude. It’s not about an individual – it’s about how this team is going to win. I can’t be any prouder of them.”
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Harlan County (50) — Tyler Brewer 11, Alex Sergent 13, Chad Massingill 5, Aaron Caldwell 12, Tyler Miller 4, James Bond 0, Zach Caldwell 0, Cody Bumgardner 5, Fred Massey 0.
South laurel (48) — Blake Sanders 7, Matt Slavey 7, Zach Baxter 20, Austin Rader 3, Austin Schaser 1, Trevor Grubb 5, Zack Jones 0, Brennan Miller 5, Tyler Vandeventer 0.