Lady Bears ready to take next step

When you have just about everyone back from a team that won 28 games the previous year, including 25 straight at one point with WYMT Mountain Classic and 52nd District Tournament titles along the way, it’s pretty easy to narrow your focus to one goal.

For the Harlan County Lady Bears, the only goal that eluded them last year was a 13th Region Tournament title and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen as they fell in the finals to Harlan for the second straight year.

The Lady Bears’ main objective for the 2018 season begins and ends there, with a regional championship.

“That’s definitely our No. 1 goal, but you have to get to the region first and I never overlook anyone, especially our district opponents,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “We have a lot of experience with six seniors, and I have to keep them in check. We have to keep them focused and on the right page. We have to finish this thing out and look back with no regrets.”

Green has preached the importance of focus throughout the season and staying in the moment, not looking ahead to March in November.

“Last year was a special season, but we know we have a target on our backs this year,” she said. “Our kids have to come and play. We’re deep and have a lot of kids who can do a lot of different things. We have to do our thing.”

The Lady Bears learned something from the Harlan loss in the regional finals, the importance of defense and more balance on offense.

“We shot 38 percent in that game, and our defense wasn’t real good,” Green said. “We know we have to get more production out of our guards. We had a lot of kids in the gym this year and I think they will be able to give us some more points this year.

The Lady Bears’ have no shortage of star power, beginning with 6-1 all-state guard Blair Green (23.1 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game last year), a University of Kentucky signee who is among the favorites for this year’s Miss Basketball award.

“Leadership is the No. 1 thing we need from Blair,” said Green, of her daughter. “Winning a regional championship is the No. 1 goal on her list. She has to come out every game and do her best and play her game and keep everyone involved. She’s a triple-double type kid who may not lead you in points but will do so many things and get everyone involved.”

Senior center Kaylea Gross (20.0, 9.1), at 6-0, was also an all-stater last year and is drawing attention from numerous colleges, including Arkansas State and the University of South Carolina-Upstate, along with the University of the Cumberlands. Gross is very tough to defend around the basket and continues to progress in other parts of her game.

“We want Kaylea to continue being consistent. She runs the floor well and has good hands. She just needs to keep doing what she does well,” Green said. “Kaylea is a high-profile player and people will focus on her inside. She just has to keep rebounding, finishing around the basket and staying out of foul trouble. She has worked real hard this summer, and I think she will have a great season.”

Phebe McHargue (4.8), a junior, and Rebecca Middleton (6.1, 3.3), a senior, also return to the HCHS backcourt. McHargue handles much of the ball-handling duties and Middleton provides a 3-point threat.

“Phebe stayed in the gym a lot and had a good summer. She knows what she needs to do. We need good ball pressure from her, in addition to scoring,” Green said. “Rebecca is one of those players who will do the dirty work. She’s also a streaky shooter who can shoot the deep 3. We want her to continue working on the boards and getting to loose balls. She’s a good role model for this team.”

Breann Turner (4.0, 4.4), a 5-8 junior, and Lainey Cox (2.6, 3.0), a 5-10 senior, shared time at forward a year ago with Turner back as a starter and Cox continuing to progress.

“They will both have to play a lot of minutes. Breann is one of our smartest players who can do a lot of things. We need her to hit the mid-range shot when people drop off her on Kaylea,” Green said. “Lainey gets better every year. She’s had a good preseason, and I’m real excited about her. I’ve seen some great things out of her.”

Shelby McDaniel (2.8), a 5-9 junior guard who gave the Lady Bears a big lift in numerous games last season after moving from Hawaii, continues to progress rapidly and has drawn attention from several colleges, including Lincoln Memorial University, Eastern Kentucky University and Dayton.

“Shelby has worked on her game a lot. What makes her so attractive to people is that she has long arms with good handles and can shoot it well and pass it,” Green said. “I need her to build her confidence. She can really get in a zone and give you four or five great minutes. She could start any game for us.”

Junior guards K.K. Johnson (2.5) and Reanna Middleton (3.4) provide an offensive boost off the bench and also help the Lady Bears’ quickness on defense. Middleton was sidelined through much of last season with a knee injury.

“K.K. has had a great attitude pushing other kids. Her and Phebe have really worked hard against each other. She is really quick and shoots it well,” Green said. “Reanna has been cleared, so she is about 75 percent now. She is a great athlete who can shoot, get to the basket and play defense. Her best days are ahead. She will be one of her top players as a senior.”

Morgan Napier and Macie Napier, both seniors, will also see action off the HCHS bench, along with sophomores Hannah Wood, Morgan Blakley, Emily Long and Dixie Ewing.

“Morgan and Macie are two of her hardest workers who bring it every day and are good leaders,” Green said. “We have some very good young players who will help us down the line.”

Depth is a strength for the Lady Bears with at least nine players on the roster who would start for most, if not all, of the teams in the 13th Region.

“It is unusual and it’s hard to balance that. I tell them it doesn’t matter who starts, it’s who finishes sometimes,” Green said. “They all have confidence in each other and that really helps. Practice is so competitive. They know that if you don’t come to play, a lot of people can take your spot

While acknowledging her Lady Bears will be the preseason favorite in the 13th Region, Green knows winning a region is never easy, especially with South Laurel bringing back four key players from a team that won at HCHS last December. North Laurel and Clay County will also be strong with Whitley County, Williamsburg and Harlan also capable of making a postseason run.

“The 13th Region is very competitive and those teams aren’t intimidated by anybody, and we feel the same way,” Green said. “South will have a fabulous team with a great point guard in Ally Collett. Clay has Mathis, who makes them really good. Whitley and North have a lot of kids back. We have a lot of depth, talent and speed, but we don’t overlook anyone. We know it’s a long season.”