Dragons hold off Bell’s upset bid, earn seventh straight trip to regional


Jon Dickenson

Harlan senior forward Jaedyn GIst looked to pass around Bell County’s Jacob Jones in 52nd District Tournament action. The Green Dragons pulled away down the stretch for a 66-58 victory.

By John Henson, Managing Editor


MIDDLESBORO — Harlan earned its seventh straight trip to the 13th Region Tournament, but it was far from easy as the Dragons found themselves locked in a 52-52 tie with four minutes to play before an 8-0 run put them in control on the way to a 66-58 win over Bell County on Tuesday at Middlesboro High School.
Junior guard Kyler McLendon four of six shots in the fourth quarter and finished with 29 points to lead the 24-6 Dragons.
Senior forward Will Austin added 15 points and pulled down 22 rebounds as part of the Dragons’ 43-20 advantage on the boards that led to 18 more shots for Harlan than Bell.
“There were a lot of fouls called, so I think the physicality of the game contributed to missed shots and turnovers. In order to win a game like that, we had to play their style and I thought we did a good job of matching their style,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “It was a weird game, but we had a two- or three-minute stretch where we hit some big shots.”
“They have some athletic dudes who are a little older than us in spots. They beat us to loose balls, but our kids fought as hard as they could and left it all out there for 32 minutes,” Bell County coach Brad Sizemore said.
The 15-16 Bobcats were led by senior guard Dawson Woolum with 22 points. Cameron Hall chipped in with 12 points, followed by Ethan Buell with 11 points and Blake Burnett with 10.
Led by five baskets from McLendon, Harlan led the entire first quarter. A three-point play by Austin pushed the Dragons’ advantage to 13-5 before Bell fought back behind three baskets from Woolum and two each from Buell and Burnett to get as close as one before five straight points from McLendon stretched the lead back to six, at 22-16.
The Dragons hit only three of 14 shots in the second quarter as Bell took its first lead after nine straight points from Woolum. The Bobcats led by as many as five points late in the half and took a 35-32 advantage into the locker room.
“I’m really proud of how we played as far as getting behind and how the kids responded. We didn’t panic and made several big plays on both ends of the floor,” Sizemore said. “We were right where we wanted to be at halftime. You have to give the other team credit. They made a lot of deep 3s when they needed them and got some crucial offensive rebounds, but I’m really proud of how we played tonight. It’s unfortunate we didn’t get it done but, hopefully, our guys got some good experience this year and we’ll continue to get better. We have a lot of these guys coming back. It’s unfortunate we didn’t play well. They running clocked us the first time we played them, but I feel we got a little better each time we played them, and that’s all I can ask as a coach. We got beat by a better team, but we’ll go back to work and, hopefully, be better by next season.”
Bell was ice cold to begin the second half, missing its first 11 shots from the field. Harlan also struggled to score and didn’t take the lead until Kyler McLendon and Kaleb McLendon hit back-to-back 3s. Hall and Kaleb McLendon traded treys to end the period and Harlan took a 45-41 lead into the final quarter.
After ties at 48, 50 and 52, Harlan reeled off eight straight points beginning with a baskets from Trenton Cole with 3:56 to play. Austin hit two free throws, then Kyler McLendon found Gist with a lob pass and then scored himself to make it 60-52 with 2:26 remaining. Harlan hit seven of 15 shots in the quarter and owned a 13-1 advantage on the boards.
“I thought the lob to Jaedyn was a big play. We also hit some free throws,” Akal said. “Bell County did what they had to do to stay in the game. I thought we did a good job of playing that way and winning the game. (Kyler) is our guy and that’s what we does. I have confidence in him. We never could get the rhythm, but we did what we had to do to win the basketball game during the three- or four-minute stretch.”
Harlan will play Harlan County on Friday at 7 in the 52nd District Tournament finals.
The Bobcats lost starting guard Cayden Huff to a broken leg during pregame warmups, leading to a lengthy delay as emergency personnel took the Bell freshman out of the gym in a stretcher.
“Cayden getting hurt was heartbreaking for him and these kids,” Sizemore said. “It was a freak thing, and our kids were really upset. For them to be able to regroup and respond like they did, I was real proud of them.”