Late surge helps Bears edge Letcher

WHITESBURG — In addition to the big trophy and tickets to Rupp Arena, regional championship teams gain valuable experience in winning close games.

The Harlan County Black Bears needed that experience gained last March in their season opener Friday at Letcher Central, rallying several times before finally edging the Cougars 59-54.

“Those guys are experienced and know how to win,” said Winston Lee, who made his debut as the Letcher Central coach after several years as an assistant. “(HCHS coach) Mike (Jones) and those kids are so great and I have a lot of respect for them. You always want the W, but I am so pleased with the effort we put out there tonight. We had too many turnovers, but if we can correct a few of those we can be better. I thought we did a pretty good job executing when he had an opportunity.”

Jones, whose team shot a frigid 31 percent in both halfs, felt fortunate to escape with the win.

“We have a lot to work on offensively,” he said. “My fear coming into the season was that it would take a while for our offense to catch up with our defense. We didn’t do either one very well tonight. In our two scrimmages, we put some points on the board, but we couldn’t find a rhythm tonight. We got outplayed and outcoached. We were doing opposite of what we wanted on offense, and I don’t understand that, but we’ll correct it.”

Jones pushed the right buttons after Letcher Central had turned a seven-point deficit late in the third quarter into a three-point lead with 3:30 left as HCHS missed its first six shots from the field in the period and was held scoreless for four minutes. Harlan County sophomore wing Taylor Spurlock entered the game at that point and hit a clutch 12-footer in the paint to end the drought and ignite a 9-0 run that won the game. Alex Pace hit a 3-pointer off a turnover to put the Bears ahead and Tyrese Simmons, only a week away from football, overcame a slow start with two free throws and basket in the late surge.

“We decided we needed to put somebody in the middle. It’s something we should have done earlier in the game,” Jones said. “Taylor is capable of putting up some points in a hurry, and he was big tonight. We’ll need that from him all season.”

Senior point guard Andrew Creech scored 18 points to lead the Bears. Pace and Drew Nolan added 15 and 10 points, respectively.

“We had some kids step up and hit shots when we needed it,” Jones said. “We hit some free throws at the end and got some stops, but we’re very fortunate. It’s disappointing because we’re still the champs until someone beats us and we need to play with a chip on our shoulder and we didn’t do that tonight until at the end.”

Junior guard Caleb Stidham scored 13 points to lead the Cougars. Tyler Boggs and Elijah Raglin added 12 and 10 points, respectively.

Letcher hit seven of 12 shots from the field in the first quarter, compared to three of 12 for HCHS, and built an 18-10 lead by closing with six straight points. Boggs and Raglin each had three baskets in the quarter to lead the Cougars.

HCHS battled back in the second quarter with its defense, forcing three straight turnovers in a 10-0 run that put the Bears up 22-20. Lamar Burkhart started the run, then Creech and Patrick Bynum turned steals into baskets before Creech reeled off four straight points. Letcher rallied to go back up by three, but Nolan scored and then Creech followed with a basket seconds later after a steal to help the Bears pull even at 27 by halftime.

Harlan County will play at Breathitt County on Saturday.

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Harlan County rallied from a three-point halftime deficit to win 55-40 in the junior varsity game.

Taylor Spurlock led a balanced HCHS offense with 15 points. Freshman guard Tyler Cole added 12 points. Freshman Josh Turner and sophomore Alex Nantz contributed 11 points each. Michael and Matthew Simpson added four and three points, respectively.

Sophomore guards Kenton Combs and Parker Williams led the Cougars with 15 and 11 points, respectively.

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Harlan County 59, Letcher Central 54

HARLAN COUNTY (1-0)

Andrew Creech 6-11 5-6 18, Drew Nolan 2-9 6-7 10, Alex Pace 4-11 4-8 15, Tyrese Simmons 2-8 4-5 8, Lamar Burkhart 1-5 0-0 2, Gabe Price 0-1 0-0 0, Patrick Bynum 2-6 0-0 4, Taylor Spurlock 1-4 0-0 2, Tyler Cole 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-55 19-26 59.

LETCHER CENTRAL (1-0)

Tyler Boggs 4-6 4-6 12, Caleb Stidham 5-7 3-5 13, Tyler Stacy 0-1 0-0 0, Gregory Kincer 3-6 2-3 8, Elijah Raglin 5-10 0-0 10 Trevor Hardin 1-4 1-2 3, Dalton Martin 0-3 2-2 2, Dakota Shepherd 1-5 6, Parker Williams 0-0 0-2 0. Totals: 19-42 16-24 54.

Harlan County 10 17 20 12 — 59

Letcher Central 18 9 15 12 — 54

3-point goals: Harlan County 4-17 (Pace 3-7, Creech 1-1, Spurlock 0-1, Nolan 0-2, Simmons 0-2, Burkhart 0-2, Bynum 0-2), Letcher Central 0-6 (Stidham 0-1, Raglin 0-1, Hardin 0-1, Martin 0-3). Rebounds: Harlan County 29 (Pace 7, Creech 5, Nolan 5, Simmons 5, Price 3, Burkhart 2, Bynum 2), Letcher Central 27 (Boggs 7, Shepherd 5, Stacy 4, Kincer 4, Martin 3, Raglin 2, Hardin 2). Turnovers: Harlan County 14, Letcher Central 21. Fouled out: Letcher Central (Kincer, Raglin). Technical fouls: Harlan County (Creech), Letcher Central (Kincer).