Lady Bears advance to regional finals

CORBIN — A showdown matching Harlan County against South Laurel, teams that spent much of the season ranked among the state’s top 25 and in the top two spots in the mountains, lived up to expectations Friday in the regional semifinals at The Corbin Arena.

In a battle matching several of the region’s best players, it was the star of stars taking over whenever Harlan County found itself in trouble. Senior guard Blair Green, an all-stater headed for the University of Kentucky, scored 38 points as she hit 12 of 20 shots from the field and 13 of 15 from the line.

“She makes plays when she needs to and she made some big buckets at the end,” South Laurel coach Jon Walker said. “She cut through lane once and scored and then hit a tough baseline jumper. There’s a reason she’s a Miss Basketball candidate. She’s a tough player and she wants to win this thing. You can see it in her eyes.”

“She is playing real well right now. She wants it for these seniors and the rest of the team,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said of her daughter. “We have some kids who are really playing well and they know their roles. I’m not having to coach them up too much because they’ve been there and done that and know how they felt the last two years (losing in the regional finals).”

Senior forward Lainey Cox also had a big game for the 27-2 Lady Bears with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Shelby McDaniel and K.K. Johnson added eight and seven points, respectively.

“Lainey was huge for us tonight,” Green said. “Bree (Turner) drew a big charge, and K.K. (Johnson) hit a big 3. We had so many kids make plays for us tonight.”

Sophomore guards Ally Collett and Amerah Steele teamed for 40 points as Collett scored 23 and Steele added 17. Junior center Dianna Morgan contributed eight points and nine rebounds despite foul trouble.

Harlan County set the tone for the game early with a strong defensive effort that limited South Laurel to 27 percent (six of 22) shooting in the first half. The Lady Bears were efficient in their halfcourt offense and converted several steals into points in shooting 57 percent in the first half and 55 percent (24 of 44) for the game.

Harlan County’s pressure paid almost immediate dividends as a couple of early turnovers led to Green layups for an 8-0 lead, prompting a Walker timeout.

South closed to within one on a 3-pointer and two free throws by Steele and basket by Morgan. McDaniel provided a spark off the bench at that point as she scored and then found Lainey Cox for a basket. Green’s jumper pushed the Lady Bears’ lead to 14-8 after one quarter.

A steal and layup by McDaniel pushed the lead to double digits early in the second quarter. Morgan picked up her third foul with 3:28 left in the half but remained in the game after a short, scoring inside to pull the Lady Cards within nine in the final minute. Green hit a 3-pointer and Cox scored inside as HCHS took a 31-17 lead into the break.

“Our halfcourt defense changed a little tonight, and we did a nice job with it,” Green said. “Intensity was the name of the game for us. I didn’t have to get them pumped up. They were ready to go.”

“We dug ourselves a big hole. You have to give credit to Harlan County,” Walker said. “They stuck to their game plan and gave us a lot of problems. I’m proud of the way they fought back, but against a team like that it’s hard when you dig yourselves a hole.”

Harlan County lost the momentum midway through the third quarter as South Laurel’s pressure led to 10 turnovers. Collett and Steele took turns attacking the basket, carving into the lead with an 11-2 run that made the score 35-31.

“We didn’t attack the basket like we normally do to start the game,” Walker said. “Once we got ourselves going on defense we started attacking and got some open shots.”

A Phebe McHargue steal leading to a Green layup seemed to calm the Lady Bears’ nerves and started a 10-3 run that ended with a 3-pointer from Johnson and a basket by McDaniel off a beautiful pass from Cox to make the score 45-34 after three quarters.

“We told them they would go man and would press you, but they brought a little harder pressure than we were ready for. We threw it to some people not ready for the ball,” Green said. “Luckily, we got some stops and hit some shots.”

Harlan County built its lead back to 14 early in the fourth quarter on baskets by Green and Cox before South Laurel rallied once again. Taylor Cromer’s 3-pointer started a 19-8 run that featured a couple of baskets each from Cromer and Steele. Emma Hibbitts’ 3-pointer cut the deficit to 57-54 with 2:30 left, and South had a chance to pull even on a 3-pointer by Collett that came up short.

Green again stepped up to put HCHS back in command, scoring inside to push the lead to five. Cox added a basket of an offensive rebound to push the lead back to seven. Four straight free throws by Green stretched the advantage to 10 and put the game away.

“Ally just left it short, but Harlan County made plays. They crashed the boards so well,” Walker said. “They are always there, and Dianna was in foul trouble. They live on the offensive boards, and they are bigger and stronger than us.”

Harlan County will make its sixth trip to the 13th Region Tournament finals in the 10-year history of the school. The Lady Bears lost to Clay County in 2009, 2010 and 2012 and fell to district rival Harlan the past two seasons. The winner of last night’s second game matching North Laurel against Whitley County will provide the opposition on Saturday at 7 p.m.

“I don’t think anyone will come up with a big game plan for tomorrow night,” Green said. “Kids have to show up to play. That’s pretty much the bottom line.”

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Harlan County 68, South Laurel 62

SOUTH LAUREL (26-6)

Ally Collett 6-16 11-14 23, Taylor Cromer 2-10 1-3 6, Amerah Steele 6-14 2-4 17, Mariah Anders 0-2 2-2 2, Dianna Morgan 3-3 2-4 8, Emma Hibbitts 2-3 0-0 5, Zoe Williams 0-0 1-2 1, Lindsey Cox 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 19-48 19-29 62.

HARLAN COUNTY (27-2)

Phebe McHargue 0-1 0-0 2, K.K. Johnson 1-6 4-6 7, Blair Green 12-20 13-15 38, Lainey Cox 6-8 0-0 12, Shelby McDaniel 4-6 0-0 8, Morgan Napier 0-0 1-2 1. Totals: 24-44 18-23 68.

South Laurel 8 9 17 28 — 62

Harlan County 14 17 14 23 — 68

3-point goals: South Laurel 5-18 (Steele 3-5, Hibbitts 1-1, Cromer 1-6, Collett 0-6), Harlan County 2-5 (Green 1-1, Johnson 1-3, McDaniel 0-1). Rebounds: South Laurel 23 (Morgan 9, Steele 4, Anders 4, Hibbitts 3, Collett 1, Cromer 1, team 1), Harlan County 26 (Cox 11, Green 8, Turner 3, McHargue 1, Johnson 1, McDaniel 1, team 1). Assists: South Laurel 5 (Collett 2, Steele 2, Anders 1), Harlan County 18 (Johnson 5, McDaniel 5, McHargue 3, Green 3, Cox 1, Turner 1). Turnovers: South Laurel 21, Harlan County 26. Fouled out: South Laurel (Morgan), Harlan County (Turner 5).