By Mitch Howard
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
BAXTER—If close games are won by the team that wants it most, who wins games coveted equally by both teams? It comes down to execution, or a lucky bounce, or maybe a whistle.
It would be impossible to gauge which team wanted most to win Friday’s 13th Region semifinal between North Laurel and Harlan County. Every loose ball became a melee. Each shot challenged with force. There was Harlan County’s Alex Sergent waving to the fans to get louder. There was Marcus Carson asking for a basket to throw up without leaving the game for a second.
“(Carson) played tremendously hard. He left it all out on the floor. All of the kids did,” North Laurel coach Brad Sizemore said. “They didn’t want to lose.”
But it would become a standoff with the Black Bears equally determined as they erased an eight-point North Laurel halftime lead for a 50-45 win.
“When you are playing a team that wants to go to the state tournament as bad as Harlan County does, you can see it in their kids’ eyes. They’re going to continue to fight,” Sizemore said.
Harlan County overcame a nearly perfect first half by North Laurel by dominating the third quarter. The third quarter had been North Laurel’s best this season with several games decided by what they did after halftime. This time they watched a 25-17 lead disappear in a quarter they managed just one field goal.
“An eight-point lead against this bunch is not an eight-point lead. Like I told you all year, they have the best team in the region. They just had to get over the hump,” Sizemore said.
After shooting better than 50 percent in the first half and making 6-of-8 shots in the second quarter, North Laurel’s shooting turned to ice in the third. With Harlan County switching from zone to man defense, the Jaguars made just 1-of-7 shots.
“When we played them in the WYMT (Tournament) they played us in man to start the game. We thought they would try to do that a lot. In the third quarter they came out and really manned us. We just had a hard time scoring,” Sizemore said.
Harlan County scored the first six points of the second half before the Jaguars made a free throw. A three-point play by Chad Massingill tied the score at 26-26. Tyler Brewer then stripped the ball from Carson at midcourt and was fouled. His free throws gave Harlan County a 28-26 lead. It was the fifth lead change.
“We knew they were going to come after us,” Sizemore said.
After another North Laurel turnover, they committed seven in the quarter, Sergent missed two free throws. Aaron Caldwell grabbed the rebound and scored for Harlan County. It completed a 13-1 run to start the second half.
“We got a little bit rattled when they cut into the lead,” Sizemore said.
Carson stopped the bleeding with a behind the back pass to Austin Rush for a layup. The Black Bears took a 31-29 lead into the fourth quarter.
Harlan County led by five with 3:34 to play. The North Laurel rally began with a three-point play by Kendrick Henson, Tuesday’s hero. After two Harlan County free throws, Carson sank a three-pointer. Carson then made a steal at midcourt and drove for a layup to give the Jaguars a 46-45 lead with 1:26 to play.
“We have kind of been up and down all year, but the tournament is here and with the season is on the line, we finally got that look in our eye,” Sizemore said.
It was the look of a team determined not to lose, but Harlan County had the same look. Sergent missed a shot in the lane with 1:07 and North Laurel grabbed the rebound. Carson went to the free throw line with 49 seconds. His shot didn’t fall.
Massengill was fouled with 43.6 seconds. He made the second of two free throws a 45-45 tie. A turnover gave the ball back to Harlan County. Tyler Brewer missed, but Zack Caldwell was there for the putback to give Harlan County the lead with 25 seconds. North Laurel turned the ball over again and Massingill sealed the win with a three-point play with 12.2 seconds.
“We didn’t complete some big plays when we needed them and they ended up getting the win, but I’m really proud and satisfied with the effort we gave tonight,” Sizemore said.
It looked like North Laurel’s game early as they did little wrong in the second quarter. The Jaguars scored the first eight points of the second quarter. They only missed two shots in the quarter with one a desperation heave at the buzzer.
“I thought we played a beautiful game to start the game. I thought we did exactly what we wanted to do coming in,” Sizemore said. “We wanted to get in a possession game, not them running. They are really good when they run.”
Although the Jaguars season ended short of the goal of returning to the Sweet Sixteen, there was some satisfaction.
“We had the lead with under a minute with a chance to go to the finals of the region. That’s all I can ask for,” Sizemore said.
Boys’ 13th Region Tournament
at Harlan County
Harlan County 50, North Laurel 45
North Laurel 11 14 4 16—45
Harlan County 12 5 14 19—50
NORTH LAUREL (45)—Carson 12, Henson 14, Thompson 2, Rush 11, Allen 6.
HARLAN COUNTY (50)—Brewer 9, Sergent 10, Massingill 11, Caldwell 5, Miller 4, Caldwell 8, Bumgardner 3.