Harlan played well initially when Smith, a junior point guard, went out with as season-ending Achilles tendon tear, but the Dragons have now lost four straight, including a 71-49 decision Tuesday against Barbourville in the quarterfinals of the 13th Region All "A" Classic.
Barbourville (14-2) split its two games without Cox, their senior point guard, and Phipps says having him back in the lineup makes a big difference.
"The preseason rankings had Harlan (No.) 1 and us (No.) 2," Phipps said. "There was no difference in either one of our teams, but they lost (John) Smith, and that's been a big key to their team.
"We have Matthew (Cox) back, and we're full strength and we're healthy, and we just want to go from there."
Turnovers have been a big problem for the Dragons since Smith was sidelined, and they had 19 against the Tigers.
"That's basically the ballgame," Harlan coach Casey Lester said. "Everybody is going to turn the ball over, but having that many against a 2-3 zone is the sad part.
"A team with that experience and the leadership they have over there, you can't do that."
Sophomore guard Derek Vanover paced the Tigers with 20 points as he hit eight of 11 shots, several coming on long passes from Cox after turnovers. Cox added 15 points and seven rebounds in addition to smoothly running the Barbourville offense. Senior forward Aaron Grubb contributed 14 points.
Senior guards Ryan Clem and Casey Huff led the Dragons with 15 and 11 points, respectively. Junior center Robbie Curtis added 10, but he wasn't as big a part of the Harlan offense as Lester had hoped.
"I felt like we could hurt them inside, but we couldn't get it in there," Lester said. "Except for a couple of times early in the game, when we did get it inside we scored or went to the free throw line."
Barbourville started off red-hot against a Harlan 2-3 zone, hitting seven of 11 shots in the first quarter. Vanover hit a pair of 3-pointers and Chris Good and Cody Messer added one each as the Tigers built a 19-10 advantage after one period.
"We wanted to get the game up to 70 or 75 (points)," Phipps said. "They are a well-coached team, and they had to make some adjustments and we didn't. I think that was the key to the game."
Vanover added two more baskets in the second quarter as the Tigers continued to shoot well, hitting six of 10 attempts in the period as Barbourville pushed its lead to 34-22 by halftime.
Barbourville shot 52 percent (25 of 48) from the field and 78 percent (14 of 18) from the free throw line.
"We did shoot the ball well, and we've had a chance to work on some things that we've been doing wrong," Phipps said. "One of them was their free throws, and we shot pretty good from the foul line, and I thought we took care of the basketball."
The Tigers' lead grew to 18 by the end of the third quarter as Harlan all but abandoned its post offense, missing six of six 3-point attempts.
"That was a big key, that we couldn't get Robbie or Stephen (Brown) more touches," Lester said.
Vanover added three baskets inside and Cox hit a pair of 3-pointers as Barbourville outscored Harlan 22-18 in the fourth quarter as both coaches emptied their benches in the final minutes.
The performance of the Tigers' reserves drew praise from Phipps, who said depth was crucial for his team during the remainder of the tournament.
"Cody (Messer) and Jerry (Smith) have been playing super off the bench, and when you can play seven people you can do a lot of things," he said.
Barbourville returns to action in the semifinals of the tournament on Thursday at Evarts, taking on Middlesboro, a 70-66 winner at Cumberland last night, at 6 p.m. in the opening game. Jackson County will play Pineville in the nightcap at 7:30.
Harlan (9-8) will play host to Cawood on Tuesday.
Casey Huff 4-9 0-0 11, Ryan Clem 5-14 2-2 15, Jon Graham 1-4 0-0 3, Stephen Brown 2-2 1-4 5, Robbie Curtis 5-10 0-2 10, Zach Goins 1-1 0-0 2, Mark O'Neill 1-3 0-0 2, Derek Sheffield 0-2 0-0 0, Ronnie Curtis 0-0 1-2 1, Andrew Link 0-0 0-0 0, Tyler Lemaster 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 19-45 4-10 49.
Matthew Cox 5-9 2-3 15, Derek Vanover 8-11 2-2 20, Chris Good 3-10 1-2 8, Aaron Grubb 4-8 6-6 14, Travis Crawford 2-6 1-2 5, Jerry Smith 2-2 2-2 6, Cody Messer 1-1 0-0 3, Garrett Clark 0-1 0-0 0, Daniel Davisson 0-0 0-0 0, Michael Poff 0-0 0-0 0, Eddie Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Corey Moran 0-0 0-0 0, Kevin Williamson 0-0 0-0 0, Bruce Ashburn 0-0 0-0 0, Luke Ashburn 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 25-48 14-18 71.
Harlan 10 12 9 18 49
Barbourville 19 15 15 22 71
3-point goals: Harlan 7-20 (Clem 3-7, Huff 3-8, Graham 1-3, O'Neill 0-2), Barbourville 7-14 (Cox 3-5, Vanover 2-3, Messer 1-1, Good 1-3, Grubb 0-2). Rebounds: Harlan 20 (Brown 6), Barbourville 24 (Cox 7). Turnovers: Harlan 19, Barbourville 11. Fouled out: None.