Dragons make plays on defense down stretch to edge Pikeville in mountain showdown


Jon Dickenson

Harlan center Will Austin finished with 22 points and nine rebounds in the Green Dragons’ 76-72 win Monday over Pikeville.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

With a basketball region and approximately 100 miles between them, the Harlan Green Dragons and Pikeville Panthers aren’t traditional rivals by any means. But after splitting two games between them earlier this season in Pikeville, the third matchup Monday at Harlan turned into a showdown between two of the top teams in eastern Kentucky.
It also had a tournament atmosphere and a tournament finish.
With Harlan holding a one-point lead in the final minute, the Dragons came up with two key stops with the game on the line. Senior guard Kaleb McLendon drew a charge on Pikeville star Rylee Samons with Harlan up by two a few seconds after Pikeville junior center Charlie Fitzer missed a shot under the basket. Kyler McLendon, who led the 19-2 Dragons with 35 points, hit two free throws to secure a 76-72 victory.
“This game has a postseason feel to it. It’s intense with two good teams competing,” Pikeville coach Elisha Justice said. “I thought the guys battled hard and took a really good team all the way down to the wire. I thought a couple of decisions, we didn’t make the best choice and it bit us at the end. But give credit to those guys for forcing us to do some things and take us out of some things. It was a fun game and I’m proud of our guys’ effort. I think it’s something we can learn from.”
“We told our guys yesterday that one of the best teams in our state would be here (Monday night),” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “Coach (Elisha) Justice always brings a great team here. We’ve had several tough, hard-tought games, and I’m proud of our guys for pulling it out.”
Akal credited his defense for making the plays with the game on the line, especially the charge that Kaleb McLendon drew to foul Samons out after his 26-point performance.
“I thought that was the play of the game,” Akal said. “Some things went well and some went bad, but when we needed a stop we got it. Jaedyn (Gist) and Will (Austin) block a lot of shots, but Kaleb is one of our best rim protectors because he is very good at taking charges, which to us is just as good as blocking a shot.”
Samons hit 11 of 19 shots to lead the 11-6 Panthers. Fitzer finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds.
“We wanted to make him work for his shots, and I was a little disappointed that he was able to step into a couple of 3s,” Akal said of Samons. “When you have good players like, that, they will make shots. We just wanted to make it as hard as possible.”
Senior center Will Austin added 22 points and nine rebounds for the Dragons. Jaedyn Gist contributed 10 points and eight rebounds.
Harlan will play Martin County on Thursday in the first round of the state All “A” Classic at Eastern Kentucky University.