Bears survive upset bid, edge Jackets

MIDDLESBORO — Road teams who lose a three-point lead in the closing seconds of regulation and fall behind early in overtime don’t often find a way to survive, especially in the pressure-packed world of tournament basketball.

Somehow, the Harlan County Black Bears found a way to play another day. Perhaps because they didn’t know any other way.

None of the current Bears have lost a 52nd District Tournament game over the past four seasons and kept the string alive with a hard-fought 53-48 overtime win Monday over Middlesboro.

“We had to calm the kids down after they made the shot, but we responded,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “These kids believe. We’ve played in these type games, and they responded. I had complete confidence they would respond, but Middlesboro played a great game and coach (Lewis) Morris had a great gameplan.”

Junior guard Alex Pace, the Bears’ offensive leader much of the season, broke a tie with a clutch four-point play with 1:36 left in overtime to give the Bears a lead they never relinquished again. Pace missed eight of 10 shots before hitting a 3-pointer late in regulation and then another in the extra period.

“He missed his first or five shots and I told him in a timeout he would make the rest. That’s the kind of confidence we want him to have,” Jones said. “He gave the ball up right before the four-point play and he was standing right in front of me and I told him to be aggressive. He’s worked his butt off to get where he is and he’s huge for us. We have confidence in him.”

Seniors Andrew Creech and Tyrese Simmons, both members of the past three district championship squads, scored 15 and 13 points, respectively, to lead the 19-8 Bears, who will play Harlan on Friday at 7 p.m. in the district finals. Pace added 12 points.

“I told them after the game that we didn’t want to make any excuses, but we only had one practice with everyone healthy before this game,” Jones said. “We have to get back to work and get ready for Friday.”

Junior guard Drake Thomas scored 16 points to lead the 15-15 Jackets, hitting a 3-pointer late in regulation to force overtime after he grabbed a miss by Mykel Griffin and made it back to the 3-point line in time to launch the tying trey. Junior forward Christian Hubbard added 10 points.

“When you play them, they pressure so much you have to be able to drive the ball,” Morris said. “I thought we did a good job, especially defensively. We relaxed and let them seal us a couple of times, but they kept playing and made the plays down the stretch. They have a lot of seniors who have played in big games. I told the kids I thought we outplayed them. We did everything we were supposed to except to make layups.”

Harlan County looked tight early and shot that way, missing its first seven attempts before Taylor Spurlock hit a jumper in the late almost five minutes into the game. Two free throws and a basket by Kyle gave the Jackets a five-point advantage. Gabe Price accounted for the Bears’ second field goal of the quarter to pull HCHS back within three before Drake Thomas hit two free throws to put the Jackets up 13-8 after one period.

Middlesboro hit only two of four shots in the second quarter as the Bears took the lead with a 6-0 run behind four free throws from Creech and a basket by Simmons. A three-point play by Simmons pushed the lead to three. After Thomas scored for the Jackets, Pace closed the the half with a 3-pointer for a 25-21 halftime lead.

Harlan County hit five of nine shots in the third quarter, building a 35-30 lead as Pace, Gabe Price and Lamar Burkhart each had baskets in a 6-2 run to close the quarter.

Creech’s basket pushed the HCHS advantage to seven early in the fourth quarter before the Bears went cold and were unable to score for over five minutes. Middlesboro pulled to within one on baskets by T.J. Patterson, Jabari Kyle and Griffin and had three chance to take the lead only to come up empty.

“We missed so many layups, but that’s part of it. You have to put them in the hole,” Morris said. “I bet we missed 10 good layups in the second half.”

Hubbard finally put the Jackets ahead with two free throws before Pace hit a go-ahead 3-pointer. Creech hit one of two at the line for a three-point lead with 27.9 seconds left, setting the stage for Thomas’ heroics.

Pace’s four-point play put HCHS in control late in overtime. Hubbard cut the deficit in half with a basket, but Gabe Price came up with two clutch free throws when the Bears needed it most. Simmons and Patrick Bynum each hit one of two at the line to put the game away.

While the loss was disappointing, the Jackets were one of the region’s most improved teams and will bring back all five starters next season.

“We’ve played our best ball the last couple of weeks. That’s all you can ask,” Morris said. “I’m proud of them. They’ve went through some years over here where they haven’t won and sometimes it takes a while to learn what winning is about. I’ve seen improvement, so next year they should be a little stronger and have a decent idea of what we’re trying to do.”

———

Harlan County 53, Middlesboro 48

HARLAN COUNTY (19-8)

4-9 7-10 15, Taylor Spurlock 2-5 0-0 4, Alex Pace 4-12 1-4 12, Tyrese Simmons 3-5 7-9 13, Lamar Burkhart 1-1 0-1 2, Gabe Price 2-2 2-2 6, Patrick Bynum 0-0 1-2 1. Totals: 16-34 18-28 53.

MIDDLESBORO (15-15)

Jabari Kyle 3-9 3-3 9, Drake Thomas 5-11 5-5 16, T.J. Patterson 1-4 7-10 9, Christian Hubbard 2-5 6-10 10, Mykel Griffin 2-5 0-0 4, Jordan Davis 0-0 0-0 0, Andrew Padgett 0-0 0-0 0, Steven Poore 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 13-36 21-28 48.

Harlan County 8 17 10 6 12 — 53

Middlesboro 13 8 9 11 7 — 48

3-point goals: Harlan County 3-11 (Pace 3-9, Spurlock 0-2), Middlesboro 1-9 (Thomas 1-5, Kyle 0-1, Griffin 0-3). Rebounds: Harlan County 22 (Simmons 8, Pace 7, Price 5, Creech 2), Middlesboro 23 (Patterson 9, Hubbard 6, Griffin 5, Thomas 2, Kyle 1). Turnovers: Harlan County 12, Middlesboro 12. Fouled out: None.