Harlan County hasn’t made it look easy through two rounds of the 13th Region Tournament, but for the second straight outing the Black Bears found a way to win. Harlan County rallied from an eight-point deficit at the half to knock out defending champion North Laurel 50-45 and advance to the 13th Region championship.
“You have to give these kids credit again. They didn’t want to go home. They didn’t want this to be it,” said Harlan County coach Mike Jones. “I looked out on the floor and I didn’t see our kids panic. That’s the way you have got to be.”
Zach Caldwell watched as older brother Aaron powered Harlan County to an opening round victory over South Laurel on Tuesday. The sophomore forward decided it was his time to lead the Black Bears on Friday. Caldwell had all eight of his points in the final period to pace Harlan County down the stretch.
“I chipped in there, but it was off of offensive rebounds,” Zach Caldwell said. “Playing on the line in football you get used to those big guys. I wasn’t intimidated. I just tried to do what I could.”
Senior Chad Massingill hit a free throw and fellow senior Aaron Caldwell followed with a layup on an assist from Brewer to open the fourth quarter and extend Harlan County’s lead to five points. Brewer controlled the pace of the game in the quarter, with five assists in the final eight minutes.
“I called him over there and told him to trust his teammates. I didn’t want him to do too much, but I told him he had to take over. He had to be aggressive and take over for us,” Jones said.
After trading baskets for much of the period, Zach Caldwell put Harlan County up 44-40 with a pair of free throws with just under two minutes remaining. However, North Laurel senior Marcus Carson drained a trey on the opposite end to quickly reduce the deficit to one.
Carson then put the Jaguars on top with a steal and layup with 1:25 remaining. Massingill tied the game with a free throw. Carson was called for a walk on the ensuing North Laurel possession, and Zach Caldwell grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on the opposite end to put Harlan County up for good with just 25 secondsw remaining. After another North Laurel turnover, Massingill sealed the win with a three-point play with 12 seconds left.
“(Zach) made some big plays for us. He got some big offensive rebounds for us and had a big putback there at the end. You have to have that. Your bench has got to play well. Bumgardner came in and gave us some good minutes in the first half and made a big three for us,” Jones said.
The teams exchanged leads four times in a back-and-forth first quarter. Senior Alex Sergent and sophomore Tyler Miller each had four points in the opening period to pace Harlan County. Sergent closed the quarter with a pull-up jumper along the baseline to put the Bears up 12-11.
Kendrick Henson opened the game on fire from beyond the arc. Henson drained three 3-pointers in the first six minutes as North Laurel kept pace.
Harlan County struggled to generate anything offensively, while North stalled seemingly each time down the floor in the second quarter. Senior guard Carson and sophomore center Jake Allen each had five points in the period as the Jaguars pulled away for an eight-point lead at the half.
“Their intentions were to stand out there and hold if we were going to let them.We broke down in what we wanted to do. They made five threes in the first half,” Jones said.
Sophomore Cody Bumgardner scored Harlan County’s first basket just over halfway through the quarter. A bucket from Sergent made it a six-point game with 2:25 remaining, but Carson answered to close the scoring on the opposite end and make it 25-17 at the break.
Harlan County get back in the contest thanks to a dominant third quarter. The Bears outscored North 14-4 in the period to take a two-point advantage. Senior Chad Massingill brought the crowd with a steal and basket with 4:42 left in the quarter. Massingill hit the free throw to pull Harlan County even for the first time since the first quarter. Brewer picked off Carson on the ensuing and drew a foul. Brewer hit both free throws to put the Bears on top. Harlan County led by one late in the period when Massingill closed the scoring with 47 seconds left to make it 31-29.
Harlan County (25-7) will meet Clay County in the 13th Region Championship today at 7:30 p.m. The Black Bears knocked off Clay 58-47 in the WYMT Mountain Classic.
“Ain’t that the way it should be,” Jones said of the championship matchup. “They have a nice ball club. We are going to have to come in here and play for 32 minutes.”
North Laurel closes the season at 16-16.
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Harlan County (50) – Tyler Brewer 9, Alex Sergent 10, Chad Massingill 11, Aaron Caldwell 5, Tyler Miller 4, Zach Caldwell 8, Cody Bumgardner 3.
North Laurel (45) – Marcus Carson 12, Kendrick Henson 14, Austin Thompson 2, Austin Rush 11, Jake Allen 6, Peyton Broughton 0.