Harlan County fought its way back from fourth quarter deficits in the first two rounds of the 13th Region Tournament. The Black Bears simply ran out of time and fire power on Saturday in an 84-76 loss to Clay County in the regional championship.
‘We kept telling our kids that we couldn’t keep playing from behind. We couldn’t just swap baskets, and we were doing that,” said Harlan County coach Mike Jones. “They just made plays tonight. It wasn’t because we weren’t trying to defend or trying to go after the ball. They just made more plays than we did. I said whoever makes the most plays will win the ball game and that was them.”
Both teams heated up quickly from the perimeter. Senior Alex Sergent drained three treys in the first quarter to pace Harlan County, while Tyler McDaniel knocked down two and Jarrod Rice added one for Clay County.
A free throw from Aaron Caldwell put Harlan County up by two early, but Marty Bowling hit an offensive rebound putback on the opposite end to tie the game. Rice followed with a 3-pointer to put Clay on top 12-9 and Harlan County never led again in the period. Sergent tied the game at 20 with his third trey of the first quarter with just less than a minute left, but McDaniel answered with a 3-pointer just eight seconds later to make it 23-20 after one.
The Tigers recorded eight points on five offensive rebounds in the first quarter. Bowling led the way on the glass with six of his 10 points coming off of an offensive board.
Clay added to its lead in the second quarter. A jumper from Kody Reed gave the Tigers their largest lead at 38-31. Tyler Brewer made sure the lead wouldn’t grow any bigger. The senior point guard hit a pull-up jumper and then finished off an old-fashioned three-point play with 1:18 left to reduce the deficit to 38-36 at the half.
Clay County extended its lead to five points in the third quarter. A free throw gave Harlan County a 41-40 advantage two minutes into the second half. The teams traded baskets on the next few possessions. Tyler Miller scored on an offensive rebound putback to put Harlan County up by one again midway through the period. The lead was short-lived, however, as McDaniel hit a pair of free throws to put the Tigers up one. Jarrod Rice followed with a three-point play to extend the advantage to four points. Sergent drained another trey with 1:48 left in the period to reduce the deficit to one, but the Black Bears were unable to completely overcome the deficit. Stephon Lyttle closed the quarter with a free throw line jumper to put Clay up 57-52.
Brewer opened the final period with a three-point play and Chad Massingill followed with one-of-two from the free throw line to make it a one-point game. However, that was as close as Harlan County got. Each time the Black Bears made a run in the fourth quarter, the Tigers responded with a basket. The Black Bears pulled to within four points on five occasions but were never able to pull even. Clay County stayed in front at the free throw line down the stretch. The Tigers hit 10-of-12 attempts from the line in the final 1:10 to hold on for the win.
‘I am proud of these kids. I would love to have been able to see them win this thing. We fought so hard to get this tournament up here. But, that doesn’t guarantee anything. You still have to play. You are just playing out there. The fans are not playing for you. Our kids played hard, but we just got outplayed tonight,” Jones said. “They overcame our runs. We just couldn’t overcome the last one at the end.”
Brewer had 13 points in the period as he attempted to put the Bears back on top. Brewer finished with 29 points to lead all scorers in the best outings of his career.
Clay County hit 31 field goals and shot over 50 percent from the floor in an impressive offensive performance.
“Their shooting percentage had to be fantastic. No matter what we did, they just made shots. They made plays at the end, and we didn’t. So, they are the winner,” Jones said.
Clay County (26-6) will face Knott Central in the first round of the Sweet 16 on Thursday.
Harlan County closes the season at 25-8. The Black Bears must replace a stellar senior class that include four starters.
“They have helped to build this basketball program to where it is recognizable all over the state. They have won a lot of ball games over the four years. We will just have to start next year and try to build us up something again,” Jones said.
The Bears will return a trio of forwards in Tyler Miller, Zach Caldwell and Fred Massey along with sophomore point guard Cody Bumgardner as the nucleus of what should be a 13th Region contender next season.
“We have some really good sophomores. All they need is playing experience. We will get plenty of that for them this summer and come back and go through our schedule next year. By then end of the year we will be ready to go again,” Jones said.
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Clay County (84) – Tyler McDaniel 24, Jarrod Rice 9, Kody Reed 17, Stephon Lyttle 23, Marty Bowling 11, Wes Wolfe 0, Blake Smith 0, Christian McNeal 0.
Harlan County (76) – Tyler Brewer 29, Alex Sergent 19, Chad Massingill 11, Tyler Miller 8, Aaron Caldwell 7, James Bond 2, Zach Caldwell 0, Cody Bumgardner 0.