Lady Bears overcome slow start to defeat Harlan in 52nd District Tournament


Jon Dickenson

Harlan County guard Ella Karst worked against the Harlan defense in 52nd DIstrict Tournament action Monday. Karst scored 25 points in the Lady Bears’ 59-45 victory.

By John Henson, Managing Editor


MIDDLESBORO — The postseason is no time to play scared, but that’s where the Harlan County Lady Bears found themselves in the first quarter of Monday’s opening-round game against Harlan.
The Lady Bears hit only three of 16 shots in the opening quarter while Harlan was connecting on nine of 17 to build an early lead and set up an upset watch before HCHS slowly gained confidence. The Lady Bears pulled within one by halftime, then opened the second half with a 12-3 run to take the lead for good on the way to a 59-45 victory.
“I thought we played tight out of the gate,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “We were playing hard, but we weren’t taking shots we normally take. The difference was they hit their first 3 and we missed our first 3 and the spread was six, but it was just the first two minutes. I had to settle them down a little and we started executing. Harlan game out and hit shots to their credit. They were harder to get later when fatigue set in.”
“We liked our game plan going in, and I felt we executed it real well the first quarter,” Harlan coach Tiffany Hamm Rowe said. “We hit some shots and that always helps. We took the game shots after that, but they didn’t fall for us the second half.”
Junior guard Ella Karst scored 25 points and senior guard Taytum Griffin added 19 to lead Harlan County’s resurgence after the ugly first quarter.
“They started hitting shots they weren’t taking earlier,” Nolan said. ”I tell them I want them to take those shots because they will eventually go in. We were too tentative early. Taytum was in a rhythm and I wanted her to take that shot, even when we had a lead.”
Kylie Noe had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead the Lady Dragons. Aymanni Wynn, who had been out the past several weeks with a knee injury, led Harlan’s quick start and finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. The Lady Dragons were again without sophomore forward Leah Davis, who was diagnosed recently with a torn ACL that will require surgery.
While the Lady Bears were missing their first 11 shots from the field, Harlan built a 10-1 lead with the help of two baskets each by Wynn and Noe. Jaylin Smith broke the shooting drought for HCHS, but the Lady Dragons’ cushion grew to 16-4 on back-to-back 3-pointers from Wynn and Peighton Jones. A 3 by Addison Jackson and basket by Noe off a drive pushed the lead to 21-9 after one quarter.
Harlan was almost as cold in the second quarter as HC was in the first, missing its first seven shots as the Lady Bears slowly fought back behind Karst and Griffin. A 3 from the corner by Karst to close the half cut the deficit to 26-25.
Karst opened the second half with a basket to put the Lady Bears on top for the first time, a lead they never relinquished. Griffin hit three straight shots as HCHS moved out to 37-29 lead before Harlan cut the deficit to 40-35 by the end of the period.
Two straight baskets by Wynn to open the final quarter cut the deficit to one. Harlan had a couple of chances to take the lead or tie before a putback by center Taylor Lunsford with 3:30 left sparked a 12-0 run that put the game away. Karst had a three-point play after Lunsford’s basket, then Griffin hit her fifth 3-pointer. Two free throws each by Karst and Smith pushed the lead to 56-41 with 62 seconds left.
Harlan County (22-8) will meet Bell County on Thursday at 7 in the 52nd District Tournament finals. It will be the fifth straight year the Lady Bears have played Bell in the district finals. Bell has won the last three championships.
“We’ll have to come out of the game ready to play against Bell County,” Nolan said. “They have too many weapons for us to have success against if we dig a hole. Thursday will be a big night, and we are glad to get through this one. The county rivalry is always a lot of emotion, and they were hot early. We executed better in the second half, but we have things we have to correct before Thursday night.”
Harlan finished the season at 11-18 and fell in the first round of the district tournament fifth straight year, but with four starters returning the Lady Dragons should be ranked among the region’s top teams in 2024.
“We just have to get healthy. We were banged up but got as healthy as we could for his game,” Rowe said. “I’m blessed to be a coach, and I’m always looking forward to the next one.”


Harlan County senior center Taylor Lunsford pulled down 15 rebounds in the Lady Bears’ 59-45 win over Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament. (Scott Warren)


Harlan County guard Taytum Griffin hit five 3-pointers and scored 19 points in the Lady Bears’ win over Harlan on Monday in the 52nd DIstrict Tournament. (Scott Warren)