It surprised neither coach that the rematch bore little resemblance to an earlier meeting in Manchester. This time the Tigers had to stay focused until the closing minutes in a 47-40 win over North Laurel for the 49th District title.
“I thought we played really well,” North Laurel coach Brad Sizemore said. “A lot of plays came down the stretch, if we had hit a couple of shots there at times. There were a couple that didn’t fall.”
The Tigers won the earlier meeting,, 88-52, by taking charge early. This time, the Jaguars were within four points when Ethan Eversole scored with 3:05 to play. They also got the ball back with a chance to get closer. Three straight missed shots allowed that chance to slip away.
“You know your district opponents, but with that it’s something that you know they have bulletin board material with the way we beat them over there pretty good,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said.
The biggest change from the regular season meeting came on the defensive side. Clay County was not able to spot up for three pointers with Tyler McDaniel and Kody Reed being chased all over the court. The Tigers managed just one three-pointer and were held to 41 points less than they scored on their home floor.
But Clay County played solid defense as well, forcing North Laurel to turn the ball over too many times. They also held North Laurel’s leading scorers, Jake Allen and Marcus Carson, to a combined 10 points.
“That’s going to happen. Again it’s matchups. They played us a lot of zone and packed two guys in on Jake,” Sizemore said. “I think that’s what’s going to happen next week. I think they’re going to key in on those guys and we’re going to have to step up and make plays.”
Both teams will advance to the 13th Region Tournament at The Arena in Corbin. The pairings will be drawn Sunday morning.
“We didn’t win but I thought this was one of our better games we’ve played. Maybe this will springboard us with a little confidence into next week,” Sizemore said.
It didn’t look like a springboard early as Clay County again got off to a fast start, or North Laurel got off to a slow start. The Jaguars turned the ball over seven times in the first quarter and were also getting whipped on the boards. Clay County’s nine rebounds in the first quarter included seven offensive rebounds. Clay County’s 11-3 lead saw all the points come from put backs or turnovers.
“I’ve been saying this to them all week. If we can just survive the first quarter, their run. Every game I watched they just come out and blitzed people in the first quarter,” Sizemore said.
By holding the Tigers to 4-of-14 shooting in the first quarter, North Laurel was able to survive. When Kendrick Henson scored with 22 seconds, the Jaguars trailed 11-6. They were still very much in the game despite playing “rushed and slightly panicked,” according to their coach.
Clay County did open its largest lead at 15-6 when Steven Wagers scored on an offensive rebound. From there North Laurel held its own on the boards and forced six Clay County turnovers. They were also finding ways to get the ball inside to Allen and Austin Rush. Carson capped the rally by throwing up a bank shot to beat the first half buzzer. The Jaguars were only down 22-20.
“We slowed down and made some good passes under the basket and got some layups,” Sizemore said.
“We’re right there. That’s what the heartbreaking thing is for these kids because I know how bad they want it.”
Clay County turned to a senior in the third quarter and Zach McGeorge responded. Marcum said few people knew McGeorge was playing with a strained tendon in his ankle.
“He’s shown a lot of heart and he showed his leadership here tonight,” Marcum said.
McGeorge had a hand in the Tigers first eight points of the second half. He scored the first three himself. It was a McGeorge assist that led to a three-pointer for McDaniel. Stephen Lyttle scored inside off another assist for a 30-23 lead.
“They busted that lead out in the third quarter and hit that one three in the corner, but I thought out defense was great,” Sizemore said.
The seven point lead nearly evaporated in seconds. Ryan Shears scored on a baseline drive and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but Ethan Eversole grabbed the rebound and drained a three-pointer. The Clay County lead dipped to 30-28 and North Laurel had two chances to tie the score. The Tigers would again push the lead to seven before settling on a 35-30 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Lyttle scored to open the fourth quarter for a 37-30 lead that prompted to a North Laurel timeout. Sizemore told his team to “get this place rocking.” The Jaguars turned up the pressure defense and it paid quickly.
Allen made a free throw, and the Tigers could not get the ball across half court on their next possession. Henson drilled a three-pointer that cut the lead to three points. After Wagers banked in a shot in the lane, Henson scored again on a rebound. The Clay County defense held firm from there. The Jaguars made just two field goals in the final four minutes.
“These games from here out, especially tonight, we’ve got to make plays down the stretch. It’s one right after another these type of games,” Sizemore said. “I’m proud of these kids. We gave a tremendous effort tonight.”
Boys’ 49th District Tournament
at North Laurel
Clay County 47, North Laurel 40
Clay County 11 11 13 12—47
North Laurel 5 15 10 10—40
CLAY COUNTY (47)—Word 2, McGeorge 14, McDaniel 11, Kemp 4, Lyttle 9, Wagers 7.
NORTH LAUREL (40)—Carson 4, Shears 8, Allen 6, Eversole 7, Rush 6, Henson 9.