By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
BAXTER—Tuesday night’s first round game in the 13th Region Tournament featured two teams in search of a first.
The host Harlan County Black Bears were seeking their first ever win in the region tournament, while South Laurel was seeking a first region win for second year coach Jeff Davis.
In the end, it would be the Black Bears prevailing, but only by the skin of their teeth, knocking off the Cardinals, 50-48.
“I didn’t have any question coming into this game that we weren’t ready,” Davis said. “We were hungry and we were not scared.”
These two teams met earlier in the season with Harlan County prevailing at South Laurel, 44-32. The Cards had only four players score in that loss, and were without a full roster.
This time it would be different, as seven Cardinal players scored, led by Zac Baxter’s 20. Still, it wasn’t enough to offset three Black Bears in double figures: Alex Sergent had 13, Aaron Caldwell, 12, and Tyler Brewer, 11. It was Caldwell doing the damage on the offensive boards where eight of his points came off putbacks. The Black Bears (24-7) were able to grab 14 offensive rebounds and outrebounded the Cardinals, 27-18.
“We knew coming in that rebounding would be a key,” Davis said. “You gotta play 32 minutes. If you don’t you get beat.”
“Sometimes during a tournament like this you have to win a close game,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said. “Hopefully this is the one that will put us over the hump so we can relax and start playing.”
The Cards (13-17) knew coming in that they would have to limit Harlan County’s drives to the basket and force them to shoot more from the outside. Early in the first quarter, the Black Bears were getting to the basket and either scoring or getting fouled. Harlan County held a 9-5 lead with 2:31 left before South Laurel ended the quarter with an 8-0 run for a 13-9 lead. Baxter’s step back three-pointer at the buzzer capped off the run. He scored eight points in the quarter.
“Zac played a great game,” Davis said. “Everybody did. We are going to need him and these younger ones to step up next year.”
South’s offense struggled in the second quarter, hitting just 2-of-12 from the field and were outscored, 13-7. Still, the Cards trailed by only two at the half, 22-20.
The third quarter was all South Laurel, opening with a 14-2 run, including threes by Matt Slavey, Blake Sanders and Brennan Miller, to take an 11-point lead, 37-26, with 3:07 left. Harlan County’s Sergent then drained a three, followed by a lay-up by Tyler Miller, and the lead was down to six, 37-31, heading into the fourth.
Five points from Baxter, and a free throw by Austin Rader, and the Cards were still up by eight, 43-25, with 5:46 left. Then Harlan County’s offense started to click, going on a 10-0 run to turn the eight-point deficit into a two point lead, 45-43, with 2:40 left.
The lead was three, 47-44, before Baxter scored with one minute left. It was South’s first field goal since the 5:46 mark. Sergent was then fouled by Sanders, and he hit 1-of-2 free throws to give his team a 48-46 advantage with 52.9 seconds left.
Slavey then drove to the basket, but his lay-up rolled in and out. He was fouled on the play, and sank both free throws to tie the game, 48-48. Harlan County held the ball for the last shot, and with eight seconds left, Tyler Brewer drove to the basket but his shot was blocked by Austin Schaser. Caldwell came up with the ball and was fouled by Slavey with three seconds left. It was Slavey’s fifth foul. Caldwell sank both free throws for a 50-48 lead.
South Laurel had one last chance. Trevor Grubb got the ball to Sanders, who crossed half court and called time out with one second left. Out of the break, Grubb tried to inbound the ball to Zack Jones, but Brewer was able to steal the ball and Harlan County escaped with the 50-48 win.
South finished the game hitting 17-of-44 for 38.6 percent, while Harlan County was 18-of-46 for 39.1 percent. The Cards made 10 trips to the free throw line, converting six of them for 60 percent. The Black Bears were 9-of-19 from the charity stripe for 47.3 percent.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of teams,” Davis said. “This senior class has never quit. They have a never say die attitude. It’s not about individuals. We’ve overcome a lot of odds through injuries and sickness. I wouldn’t trade them for the world. We’re going to miss those seniors for the little things they did.”
The Black Bears advanced to tonight’s semifinals against North Laurel, a 49-47 winner over Knox Central. Harlan County beat the Jaguars twice this season, 72-46 and 51-43.
Boys’ 13th Region Tournament
at Harlan County
Harlan County 50, South Laurel 48
South Laurel 13 7 17 11—48
Harlan County 9 13 9 19—50
SOUTH LAUREL (48)—Sanders 7, Slavey 7, Baxter 20, Rader 3, Schaser 1, T. Grubb 5, Miller 5.
HARLAN COUNTY (50)—Brewer 11, Sergent 13, Massingill 5, A. Caldwell 12, Miller 4, Bumgardner 5.