Harlan County dug itself a hole in the first quarter and was forced to spend the rest of Friday’s 52nd District championship trying to find a way out. Unfortunately, the Lady Bears’ comeback bid fell just short in a 54-48 loss to Bell County.
Harlan County struggled to generate anything offensively in the first quarter as Bell County jumped out to the early lead. Sophomore Maci Morris had 10 of her game-high 26 points in the opening period to put the Lady Cats up 16-5.
“I think we ended up winning a couple of quarters after that. It was just that initial quarter where we were timid and against a good team,” said Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan. “We have to quit waiting until the fourth quarter. We played not to lose early. I think we were a little intimidated.”
Harlan County went back to what it does best to close the gap in the second quarter. The Lady Bears limited Bell County to just one made field goal in the period to reduce the deficit to seven. After back-to-back baskets from Lauren Lee, freshman Brooklyn Massingill drained a 3-pointer with at the 3:21 mark to close to within three. The Lady Bears were unable to get any closer the rest of the half as Jessica Sanders answered with four straight points to push the lead back to seven, where it remained at the half.
The teams traded points in the third quarter, with Bell County maintaining a seven-point lead. A jumper from Morris stretched the lead to nine, but Lee answered with a 3-pointer to pull the Lady Bears to within six with 4:50 left in the period. Harlan County got as close as six five times in the third, but the Lady Cats responded on each occasion. Senior Madison Cornett paced the Lady Bears with six points in the period.
“I knew it was going to be a dog fight and it was. I told girls at halftime that (Harlan County) wasn’t going to quit. I told them we had to meet the intensity that they brought,” said Bell County coach David Teague. “I am tickled to death with these girls. They battled and we have worked — I couldn’t be more pleased for them.”
A pair of free throws by Sanders gave Bell County an 11-point lead just over two minutes in the fourth quarter, but Harlan County refused to go away quietly. Kaitlyn Stittums answered with a pair of free throws, and Massingill followed with four straight points to closed the gap to 40-35 with 3:52 remaining in the contest. Stittums drained a pair of free throws with 1:04 left to make it a two-point game, but Morris matched her with a pair on the opposite end. Morgan Garnett then sealed the win with a pair of free throws with 34 seconds left to extend the lead to six.
“They extended that pressure up there, so there were going to be some fouls. We made them when we needed to. I give those girls credit,” said Teague. “That is what it takes.”
Stittums took over down the stretch for Harlan County, scoring the team’s final 10 points.
“I was really proud of the way she attacked the basket, and playing through three of four fouls there at the end. She was in foul trouble early, but she played through it,” Nolan said.
Bell County preserved the lead at the free throw line. The Lady Cats hit 16-of-20 attempts in the final period, and were 31-for-43 from the charity stripe in the contest. Meanwhile, Harlan County converted 16-of-25 free throw attempts.
“It’s pretty tough to win when a team shoots 43 free throws. That is the biggest discrepancy. I don’t think our big people got rewarded by going to the free throw line when they had position,” Nolan said.
Both teams will advance to next week’s 13th Region Tournament at Harlan County High School. Bell County (25-5) will face a district runner-up in next week’s regional tournament, while Harlan County (25-6) will face a district champion.
“Getting back home and playing in the regional tournament was the goal. We came up short tonight, but we will regroup and get ready for next week,” Nolan said.
Morris was named the 52nd District Tournament’s Most Valuable player. Joining her on the all-tournament team were: Bell County — Paige Robbins, Kelli Smith, Jessica Sanders and Morgan Garnett; Harlan — Jordan Brock and Jourdan Ledford; Harlan County — Brooklyn Massingill, Sarah Evans, Kaitlyn Stittums and Madison Cornett; Middlesboro — Carissa Padgett and Blair Green.
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Bell County (54) —Jessica Sanders 17, Morgan Garnett 5, Maci Morris 26, Kelli Smith 0, Paige Robbins 5, Katrina Johnson 0, Sarah Collins 0.
Harlan County (48) —Kaitlyn Stittums 15, Brooklyn Massingill 8, Lauren Lee 9, Madison Cornett 10, Sarah Evans 6, Keisha Mimes 0, Bella Noe 0, Shauntae Lewis 0.