A rivalry that isn’t competitive, the theory goes, isn’t really a rivalry.
Harlan wasn’t able to record the first win in school history against Harlan County on Thursday, but the Green Dragons proved, at long last, that they now have a rivalry in a 53-52 loss to the visiting Black Bears, the 13th Region runner-up a year ago.
Harlan County also found something in the hard-fought win at a packed Harlan gym, showing the grit and heart that had been lacking through much of a rebuilding season following the graduation of five seniors, the defection of the only returning starter and the dismissal of three other key players.
“We missed some free throws and made some mistakes, but I thought we competed harder the last couple of plays than we have since I’ve been at Harlan County High School,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said. “We have to play like this every game, and it will come. We still have some time before the district tournament. We’ve not give up on them and we haven’t given up on each other. We’re getting better because we’re winning some close games.”
The Bears turned a six-point deficit at halftime into a two-point lead after three quarters as junior guards Cody Bumgardner and Trey Sanders turned the momentum by attacking the Dragons’ defensive strength in the post where 6-foot-7 senior Aaron Simpson and 6-5 junior Tyler Miller give Harlan perhaps the best shot-blocking tandem in the region. The duo each hit three of four shots while also drawing numerous fouls as HCHS outscored the Dragons 18-10.
“They were supposed to do that the whole game,” Jones said. “We told them that they played and competed harder than we did the first half. I told them I knew this meant more to them than what they showed the first half
Sanders and junior forward Zach Caldwell each scored 12 points to lead the Bears, who improved to 10-11 overall and 3-2 in district play. Sanders and freshman guard Treyce Spulock added 10 points each.
Senior forward Aaron Simpson had a huge game for Harlan (14-7 overall, 0-3 district) with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Junior forward Tyler Miller, who started for HCHS last year, added 15 points and eight rebounds. The Dragons only got 14 points from their guards against Harlan County’s 2-3 zone.
“Their zone bothered us some, because we’re not a real good shooting team, and we’re not the best passers either. We’re young,” Parks said. “That just comes with time and experience. We’ll get better at that. My hat is off to them. They deserved to win. The played better than us. They coached better than us.”
Caldwell’s 3-pointer from the corner to open the fourth quarter pushed Harlan County’s lead to five. HCHS missed a couple of opportunities to extend the lead before Harlan fought back behind two baskets from Miller and a 3-pointer from Simpson to go up by two. A driving basket by Sanders pulled the Bears even, and a steal and layup by Caldwell put the Bears ahead to two with 2:30 left.
Noah Busroe’s basket pulled Harlan even with 1:38 to play. Cameron Carmical hit one of two at the line with 1:18 left to give HCHS a one-point lead. Miller hit two free throws to put Harlan up by one with 38 seconds left.
A steal by Leighton Piper appeared to put Harlan in control, but Spurlock got the ball back seconds later and found Caldwell, who drew a foul going for a layup. The Bears had missed eight of 13 free throws before Caldwell, an all-state lineman for the football Bears, stepped to the line and hit two with 19 seconds left. Harlan’s Caleb Hogue got up two shots in the closing seconds but was unable to connect, and Caldwell pulled down the rebound as time expired.
“We just didn’t execute toward the end. A lot of things happened. That play didn’t beat us, even though that one is the one people will remember,” Parks said. “We played better than we did at Harlan County, but we still didn’t play as well as we had been playing. I give them credit for that. I know people won’t believe this, but it’s just another game to me. We play again tomorrow night. You have to pick yourself up and go on. We’ve had a good year and can’t let games like this destroy us. We have to get back on the horse and play.”
Drew Parks and Simpson each had two baskets in the first quarter as the Dragons built a 17-11 lead. Harlan maintained a six-point advantage at halftime but Spurlock kept the Bears in the game as he hit three of three shots. The 6-4 freshman had several big plays on defense, including the play of the game in the third quarter as he blocked a shot by Parks and went in for a layup to tie the game at 32-all. Sanders and Bumgardner took over from the there to give the Bears a 42-40 lead going into the final period.
“Treyce didn’t hang his head after making a mistake, but he stayed with it and came up with a huge steal to get us to the free throw line,” Jones said. “We had some kids who did a great job of attacking the basket.”
The game was the closest by far in the six-year series, which Harlan County now leads 14-0.
“Harlan High School has never beat Harlan County in boys basketball, and I think there was so much pressure on them to win,” Parks said. “I really felt we could. We didn’t do some of the things we need to do. We may get to play again before it’s over. This hurts us in the seeding, which concerns me. We have to beat Middlesboro twice.”
Harlan plays host to Barbourville tonight, taking on the Tigers for the third time this season. Harlan County will travel to Oneida Baptist on Friday and play host to Pikeville on Saturday at 3:30.
HARLAN COUNTY (10-11)
Cody Bumgardner 5-12 4-8 14, Cameron Carmical 1-9 1-2 3, Treyce Spurlock 5-6 0-0 10, Zach Caldwell 5-10 2-2 14, Scotty Bailey 1-1 0-3 2, Trey Sanders 5-9 0-1 10. Totals: 22-47 7-15 53.
Noah Busroe 1-4 0-0 2, Drew Parks 3-7 0-0 7, Caleb Hogue 1-6 3-5 5, Tyler Miller 4-8 7-8 15, Aaron Simpson 6-14 3-4 17, Leighton Piper 2-4 0-0 4, Manny Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Jordan Dupar 1-2 0-0 2. Totals: 18-45 13-17 52.
Harlan County11 13 18 11 — 53
Harlan 17 13 10 12 — 53
3-point goals: Harlan County 2-8 (Caldwell 2-4, Carmical 0-2, Sanders 0-2), Harlan 3-8 (Simpson 2-4, Parks 1-3, Hogue 0-1). Rebounds: Harlan County 21 (Caldwell 5, Bumgardner 4, Spurlock 4, Bailey 3, Sanders 3, Carmical 2), Harlan 32 (Simpson 15, Miller 8, Piper 4, Busroe 2, Hogue 2). Turnovers: Harlan County 9, Harlan 14.