Bears back on top in 52nd after hard-fought win over Harlan in battle of state top 20 teams


Jon Dickenson

Harlan County junior guard Trent Noah scored 35 points on 10-of-15 shooting and added 20 rebounds to lead the Black Bears to a 72-62 win over Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament finals at Middlesboro on Friday.

By John Henson, Managing Editor


MIDDLESBORO — Trent Noah remembered the feeling of winning a 52nd District title, but it had been too long. After falling to Harlan in the 2021 district finals and suffering a last-second loss to eventual champ Bell County in last year’s first round, Noah and the Bears were hungry to be back on top.
Noah made certain he didn’t have to wait another year for a championship as he poured in 35 points and pulled down 20 rebounds, taking over the game down the stretch Friday in a showdown against Harlan on Friday at Middlesboro High School. The Bears hit 17 of 20 from the free throw line in the final period and held Harlan without a basket for almost six minutes to pull away for a 72-62 victory.
“I love atmospheres like this and being able to compete. We knew had to keep attacking and getting to the rim,” Noah said. “I haven’t felt this since winning the district in the eighth grade. It doesn’t get much better.”
“They turned it up on us and we knew they would,” Harlan County coach Kyle Jones said. “We ran out of timeouts due to blood (on Noah’s uniform and body) and had to call two. Our kids listened and responded, and I can’t say enough about our crowd. Our fans were great.”
Maddox Huff added 16 points as the Bears improved to 27-5 overall and knocked off Harlan for the third time this year in what are believed to be the first matchups between two Harlan County teams ranked among the state’s top 20 teams. The Bears were ranked sixth in the state in RPI coming into last night’s games and the Dragons were 16th.
“I didn’t want to go to spread that early, but I have so much confidence in Trent and Maddox when they have the ball in their hands. They handle it so well and shoot so well,” Jones said. “I knew after the first minute they would have to come out and start fouling.”
Kyler McLendon scored 18 points and Trenton Cole added 16 for the 24-7 Green Dragons, who shot only 38 percent (24 of 63) and 17 percent (four of 23) from behind the 3-point line.
“They executed better down the stretch,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal. “We’ve not the shot the ball well the last six of seven games, and that’s our thing. We haven’t been able to put the ball in the hole. It’s a struggle when you can’t do that.”
Noah and Huff teamed on three 3-pointers in the opening three minutes as Harlan County grabbed an early 9-3 lead. The Dragons struggled offensively in the quarter, missing 18 of 21 shots, but stayed within striking distance on a couple of baskets by Cole and trailed 17-10 after one period. Noah led the Bears with three baskets and eight rebounds in the quarter.
Harlan County’s lead grew to nine, at 23-14, on a 3 by Huff with just over five minutes to play, but the Dragons responded with a 10-0 run to take their first lead since the opening minute. Cole hit three 3-pointers in the quarter and Gist connected on four straight shots after missing on eight straight in the opening quarter.
Noah began to work inside after the Harlan run and hit three straight shots to help the Bears take a 32-30 lead into the break. Huff added two baskets in the quarter and Reggie Cottrell came off the bench to add one on a baseline drive.
A basket by Kyler McLendon and dunk from Gist off a turnover put Harlan ahead to start the second half. The Dragons’ lead reached four on two occasions before Caleb Johnson and Jonah Swanner pulled the Bears even. Noah’s 3 with 2:52 left in the quarter gave the Bears the lead for good, even though Harlan cut the deficit to 48-47 by the end of period on a layup by Will Austin on a pass from Gist.
Jaycee Carter’s putback basket started a 7-0 run that featured five points from Noah to open the fourth quarter. Harlan got as close as five in the final minute before Noah, Johnson and Huff put the game away at the line. Harlan County outrebounded the Dragons 13-5 in the fourth quarter and 39-30 for the game.
“I felt we really locked in and guarded all three games we played them,” Jones said. “I told Trent during a timeout he had to go get the ball and be a man on the glass, and he did that.”
“We knew Harlan has one of the best rebounding teams in the state, so we had to get on the boards to match them,” Noah said.
Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament, opening Wednesday at the Corbin Arena.


The Harlan County Black Bears are pictured with their trophy after defeating Harlan 72-62 to capture the 52nd District Tournament title. It was the Bears’ eighth district title in the 15-year history of the school. (Jon Dickenson)


Harlan County’s Jonah Swanner put up a shot over Harlan’s Jaedyn Gist in action from the 52nd District Tournament finals on Friday. (Jon Dickenson)