LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
MANCHESTER —When Chris Miller drove for a layup with 6:19 to play, North Laurel was within four points of Clay County. It was where coach Brad Sizemore wanted his team to be in a grind-it-out affair with defending 13th Region champion Clay County.
“We’re playing a really good team on their home floor. We had to play a certain way to give ourselves a chance late. I think we did that,” Sizemore said. “Then we come down and miss a couple of shots, turn it over here and there.”
The Tigers went on a 14-1 run from there to pull away for a 65-48 win. Clay County advanced to the 49th District championship game and also earned a spot in the 13th Region Tournament with the win.
“Mainly we persevered. It was a heated game, a rivalry game, and we never did lose our composure. We kept grinding and grinding,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said.
North Laurel’s 48 points marked a season low for the Jaguars, but it was mostly by design. The previous meeting between the two teams on Feb. 11 had been an 87-58 Clay County rout. For North Laurel to get a different result, they needed a different approach.
“We were trying to slow the game down and shrink the time, which I thought we did a decent job of that just to give ourselves a chance. I didn’t want to start running with them because that’s what happened last time and they are good when they get some fast break layups,” Sizemore said.
One thing the Jaguars did not do different was hit free throws. A team that has been snake bitten at the line all season made just 10-of-21 free throws. Meanwhile Clay County made 29-of-36 free throws to account for almost half of their points. Their 80 percent free throw shooting was about 10 points higher than their season average.
“It’s hit and miss. Sometimes we shoot that way and sometimes we don’t. Tonight we shot them really well,” Marcum said.
Clay County made 16-of-18 free throws during one stretch in the second half, making sure the Jaguars did not gain any ground. It meant North Laurel had to convert on every possession.
“I thought we had the game scripted as well as we possibly could until late in the fourth quarter. When it comes down to possession by possession you’ve got to make plays,” Sizemore said.
North Laurel never trailed in the first quarter and possibly should have led by more than the 11-10 advantage it took into the second period. Four turnovers kept them from building on an early 9-4 lead. With the pace in its favor, North Laurel was getting good results from a lineup featuring 6-foot-7 bookends Bryson Asher and Bailey Rice.
“We felt like we were more prepared for this game than we have been for any game all year. We took basically six days to get ready for this. We even really practiced during the Knox Central game to prepare for this,” Sizemore said. “I think that was evident in how well we played, especially early in the first half.”
Clay County took its first lead when Trey Farmer scored to open the second quarter. The Tigers never trailed again. They missed just three shots in the second quarter and also made 6-of-7 free throws. Meanwhile, North Laurel went scoreless for a stretch of more than five minutes late in the first quarter and extending into the second quarter.
“We tried to take the ball inside. They are so long it’s hard to really go one-on-one against them because they take up so much space. You drive around one guy and there is a second one waiting there,” Sizemore said.
Clay County led 30-27 at the half, but North Laurel would chip away quickly. Rice scored on a put back and Peyton Broughton scored inside to make it a 30-27 game. Again the Jaguars would go cold and Clay County opened breathing room again with an 8-0 run.
North Laurel had one rally left. It began with a Kyle Jeffers offensive rebound and layup. Asher sank a three-pointer just before the third quarter ended for a 40-34 score. Miller’s drive to open the fourth quarter made it a four-point game, but it was mostly Tigers from there.
“North Laurel is a good program and they are a really good post season team. They have shown that the last couple of years,” Marcum said.
The Jaguars season ends with a 13-18 record. They do not make the 13th Region Tournament for the first time in Sizemore’s three years.
“We gave ourselves the chance; we just couldn’t make the plays to beat a really good team like this. If you are playing a team that has a chance to win the region like they do, you have to compete for 32 minutes,” Sizemore said.
Boys’ 49th District Tournament
at Clay County
Clay County 65, North Laurel 48
North Laurel 11 12 11 14—48
Clay County 10 20 10 25—65
NORTH LAUREL (48)—Broughton 4, Miller 7, Jeffers 5, Asher 16, Thompson 5, Jervis 4, Rice 6, Hodges 1.
CLAY COUNTY (65)—Smith 10, Sams 2, Wolfe 9, House 2, McDaniel 18, Farmer 16, Allen 8.