The Middlesboro Yellow Jackets don’t always beat Bell County, but when they do they prefer the 52nd District Tournament. Middlesboro is 0-4 against the Bobcats in the regular season the last two years, but ousted them from the postseason for the second straight year with a 63-62 victory on Tuesday.
“The regular season district seeding does matter. I have tried to get that across to them. But, it seems like they save their best for the tournament,” said Middlesboro coach Russell Thompson. “We won the district and had the biggest turnaround in the state in wins last year and won the All ‘A’ 13th Region Tournament this year. They could have just settled for that and went home early, but that wasn’t enough for them. They wanted more, and they believed in each other and believed in this team.”
A Chase Woolum 3-pointer from the corner put Bell up by 12 with 2:45 left in the third quarter and appeared to be a dagger in the Yellow Jackets’ district repeat hopes, but Middlesboro didn’t go away quietly. Blake Davis answered with a trey on the ensuing possession as the Jackets began to chip away. After a layup from Tyler Potter, Austin Poindexter drained a 3-pointer on the opposite end to make it 48-40. Davis converted an old-fashioned three-point play to make it a five-point game, before Bell’s Jake Patterson closed the period with one-of-two from the line.
Woolum gave Bell an eight-point lead with a pair of free throws to open the fourth quarter, but the Jackets took control from that point. Poindexter scored after two offensive rebounds and Zach Riddle followed with a three-point play off of another offensive board to close the gap to one. Middlesboro controlled the boards in the fourth quarter with nine offensive rebounds.
“They really killed us on the boards in the second half. They went after it and we kind of tried to jump with them. They are just too athletic and old. They have a lot of seniors that are strong. You have to box kids out when you don’t have size and we didn’t do a good job of that,” said Bell County coach Lewis Morris.
Poindexter then gave the Jackets their first lead of the game with a 3-pointer from the left corner with 4:36 remaining. The junior forward finished with 20 points to lead all scorers.
“They did a good job and battled. We just didn’t complete it,” said Morris. “You have to give Middlesboro credit. They came back strong and never quit. We had our opportunities.”
After trading points, Bell’s Patterson tied the game with an offensive rebound putback with 1:10 left. However, Donnie Foister went coast-to-coast for a layup to put Middlesboro back on top with 30 seconds remaining. The Bobcats had an opportunity to tie, but Riddle blocked a Woolum shot in the paint. Poindexter grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled. He hit one-of-two to make it a three-point game with five seconds left. Potter’s halfcourt heave was no good on ensuing possession. Ben Collett grabbed the rebound and scored underneath as time expired, but the Jackets escaped with a one-point win.
The Bobcats came out on fire in the first quarter. Potter, Woolum and Patterson each drained a trey in the opening period as the Bell jumped out to a 21-11 advantage. Woolum hit a layup off of a Middlesboro turnover to push the lead to as many as 15 points.
The Jackets responded from that point and closed with seven of the final nine points. Michel Wilson made it an eight point game after a basket with just 24 seconds left, but Patterson hit a a pair of free throws will 11 seconds left to put the Bobcats back up by double-digits.
Potter turned in 19 points to lead the Bobcats, while Patterson added 17.
“I thought (Potter and Patterson) came out ready and done a good job. We just didn’t do the things we needed to do to win. It was a lack of execution,” said Morris.
The Yellow Jackets put on a shooting clinic of their own in the second quarter. Wilson and Davis each had a pair of treys in the period and Poindexter added another from beyond the arc as Middlesboro reduced the deficit to four at the half.
“We have not shot the ball well consistently all year, but we have shot it in streaks. Tonight, they hit the streak right at the right time. We needed it,” Thompson said. “When our shots fall like that from the outside they really believe they can win. They were still scoring at that time, but the 3’s kept us in the game.”
Middlesboro (15-12) will face Harlan County in a 52nd District title rematch on Thursday at 7 p.m.
“I think Harlan County is even a better team now than what we played last year. They have given it to us pretty well in the regular season, which they did last year,” Thompson said. “My guys have to come out and rebound. We have to play strong mentally and physically, take care of the basketball and limit their second shot opportunities.”
Bell County closes the season at 13-14. With center Tan Hudson out due to an injury, the Bobcats didn’t have a senior on the floor at any point in Tuesday’s contest. That returning experience will likely mean the Bobcats will be among the favorites in the 13th Region next season.
“I am proud of these kids. They have practiced hard all year and really improved. I don’t think anybody really expected us compete much this year and we competed,” Morris said. “We played with the best in the region. They have just got to learn to finish in these tournament games.”
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Middlesboro (63) – Michael Wilson 11, Donnie Foister 8, Derek Smith 2, Zach Riddle 3, Boone Bowling 2, Austin Poindexter 20, Blake Davis 17, Seth Barton 0, Major Edwards 0.
Bell County (62) – Chase Woolum 10, Tyler Potter 19, Cody Ferguson 0, Jake Patterson 17, Josh Asher 9, Ben Collett 2, Zach Partin 2, Peyton Collett 2.