When the lights go on in the postseason, Donnie Foister transforms from good to great and his Middlesboro Yellow Jackets go from disappointing to deadly.
Foister, who helped lead Middlesboro to a district championship as a sophomore and a regional final four appearance as a junior, found a new level to his game Tuesday with a 41-point explosion as the Jackets fought off a breakout performance by two Harlan County freshmen to win 81-75 and advance to Friday’s championship game against Bell County.
“It was a big night for Foister,” said Middlesboro coach Russell Thompson. “He’s struggled some lately, but he brought it tonight. He works hard. I could see tonight when he came in and sat right beside me that he was ready to go. It wasn’t just for one or two quarters. He was consistent all night. He helped us get in the lane and get them in foul trouble.”
Middlesboro has made a habit of impressive postseason runs under Thompson, saving their best basketball for last the past three years. The Jackets upset both Bell County and Harlan County two years ago and knocked off Bell County and Corbin last year, sandwiched around a loss to HCHS in the district finals. Middlesboro was expected to be one of the region’s best teams this year but didn’t play like it in posting a 9-19 regular season record. The Jackets had been playing better of late, at least until a 102-64 thrashing at the hands of Clay County on Friday.
“Foister and (Austin) Poindexter got a lot of minutes as sophomores at The Arena at the regional. They knew what it felt like and knew it was time to put everything they had into this team,” Thompson said. “They stepped up and started believing in each other.”
The Jackets shot 59 percent (29 of 49) from the field, including a blazing 67 percent (16 of 24) in the second half.
Foister had plenty of support from Poindexter, who scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, half in the fourth quarter when he limited the Bears to one shot several times. Junior guard Brandon Hale may have been the difference with his 15-point effort.
“The thing about it is, we tried to stress to our kids for two days that those two would get some points and we couldn’t make it easy for them, and sometimes we did,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said. “We also said we couldn’t let the other kids hurt us, and they did. We got out of position at times and got a little anxious. If somebody told me we would score 75, I would have thought we’d win. You have to give them credit. They shot the ball so well.”
Harlan County (14-15) was led by two of the 13th Region’s top freshmen, who saved their best games for the postseason. Carmeron Carmical hit six of seven 3-pointers and 10 of 13 shots in a 26-point effort. Treyce Spurlock, the Bears’ 6-4 wing, provided a mid-range complement with a 22-point, seven-rebound night.
“We knew they could shoot the ball, and we were trying to maintain our zone to cut down on penetration, but the way they came out shooting you couldn’t let them catch it,” Thompson said. “Spurlock had 18 in the first half and was hitting everything. Carmical was consistent all night long with six 3-pointers. For them to be able to do that speaks well of the future of Harlan County and what coach Jones has been able to do with them this year.”
“They stepped up and did what we asked,” Jones said of his freshmen. “We just didn’t do as good a job defending as a team as we could have.”
Spurlock hit four of five shots in the first quarter and Carmical added a pair of 3-pointers as Harlan County took an early lead before Foister, Poindexter and Hale brought Middlesboro back to tie the game at 19-19 heading into the second period.
Foister hit four straight shots to open the second quarter, including three 3- pointers, as Middlesboro built a five-point advantage. Four straight points by Zach Caldwell sparked a 17-8 run over the second half of the period as the Bears took a 45-41 lead at halftime.
Middlesboro hit seven of eight shots to open the second half, led by a five-of-five shooting exhibition by Foister, and went up 60-57 by the end of the third quarter.
Carmical pulled the Bears even to start the final period with a 3-pointer, but the Jackets scored the next five points behind Tyshon Kinkade and Foister and stayed on top the rest of the way.
“We tied it at 60, and I thought if we could get the ball back with the lead we could make them come out of that zone, but we could never get a stop when we really needed it,” Jones said.
Even though the Jackets kept scoring, Carmical did his best to keep the Bears close with their first three baskets of the period, including a nifty move that ended in a layup after he faked out of a Middlesboro defender. Foister hit five of his last six shots as the Jackets built a seven-point advantage. The last trey by Carmical with 26 seconds left cut the deficit to four, and HCHS had a chance to get closer after Hale missed twice at the line but were unable to convert.
“We did a good job on the glass in the fourth quarter, and we had to have that,” Thompson said. “I thought Hale really stepped up and gave us a big lift. Everybody has found their role and are believing in each other. It’s coming together at the right time, and I think it’s through Foister’s and Poindexter’s lead they are doing that.”
While Middlesboro will graduate six players, Harlan County has only one senior. Scotty Bailey, a football and baseball standout in his first and only season of high school basketball, provided solid defense and rebounding all season, in addition to setting a good example for his younger teammates with his hustle and unselfishness.
“Scotty gave us everything he had this year,” Jones said. “He hadn’t played since the eighth grade, but he came in and busted his hump every day.”
With strong junior and freshmen classes and a talented eighth-grade class on the way, the Bears should be back among the region’s top teams next season. Jones said, however, that a lot of hard work is needed to help HCHS make another run in theregion.
“We told the kids that if they wanted to improve they had to get in the gym and work on some things. Some of these guys will have to work on some of these shots they have to take in games,” Jones said. “They have to do some individual things on their own and have to dedicate themselves to get better individually offensively. They will get stronger and mature with our work in the weight room. It will be left up to them.”
Middlesboro will play Bell County on Friday at 7 in the district championship game.
HARLAN COUNTY (14-15)
Cody Bumgardner 4-14 4-9 12, Cameron Carmical 10-13 0-1 26, Treyce Spurlock 10-19 1-3 22, Zach Caldwell 3-7 3-5 9, Scotty Bailey 1-2 4-4 6, Trey Sanders 0-6 0-0 0, Cody Brewer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 28-61 12-17 75.
Brandon Hale 5-8 3-5 15, Donnie Foister 17-23 5-7 41, Austin Poindexter 4-11 9-11 17, Major Edwards 2-4 0-0 4, Tyler Prater 1-3 0-0 2, Justin Miracle 0-1 0-0 0, Tyshon Kinkade 1-1 0-0 2. Totals: 29-49 17-23 81.
Harlan County19 26 12 18 — 75
Middlesboro19 22 19 21 — 81
3-point goals: Harlan County 7-19 (Carmical 6-7, Spurlock 1-4, Sanders 0-2, Bumgardner 0-3, Caldwell 0-3), Middlesboro 6-11 (Foister 4-8, Hale 2-2, Poindexter 0-1). Rebounds: Harlan County 26 (Spurlock 7, Caldwell 7, Carmical 4, Bailey 4, Sanders 3, Bumgardner 1), Middlesboro 26 (Poindexter 12, Prater 5, Edwards 3, Foister 2, Miracle 2, Hale 1, Kinkade 1). Turnovers: Harlan County 9, Middlesboro 8. Fouled out: Harlan County (Bailey).