From The Sidelines: Bears, Dragons played 10 games against Sweet Sixteen teams during special season


Les Nicholson

Breathitt County sophomore guard Austin Sperry, the 14th Region’s top-rated player, went for a block in state tournament action Thursday against Male. Both Harlan County and Harlan defeated Breathitt County this season and posted a combined 6-4 record against the state tournament field by playing nine of the 16 teams.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

LEXINGTON — While I sit in Rupp Arena this week watching the state tournament, as I’ve done just about every year since my first Sweet Sixteen experience in 1984, I usually think about how close a Harlan County team was to getting here and maybe what it might take to get here next season.
That feeling is especially strong this season as I scan the bracket and see all the familiar names from the 2023 season. I don’t know if any Harlan County team has played as many Sweet Sixteen squads as Harlan County and Harlan played this winter with 10 games all together against nine of the 16 teams that qualified.
Harlan County, which finished 27-6 overall and was ranked sixth in the state in the RPI standings, owned a 4-2 records against state tournament teams this year. The Bears beat 14th Region champ Breathitt County twice while downing 7th Region champ Male and 12th Region champ Pulaski County. The Bears lost to 9th Region champ Newport and 2nd Region champ Lyon County. HCHS played both Lyon and Male in the prestigious King of the Bluegrass tournament, a trip to Fairdale the Bears are scheduled to repeat in the 2023-2024 season.
Harlan, with a record of 24-8 and ranked 16th in the RPI system, was 2-2 against the state tournament field, downing Breathitt County and 16th Region champ Ashland while falling to 15th Region champ Martin County and 13th Region champ North Laurel.
The second game Thursday feature Male against Breathitt County, two teams that Harlan County defeated this season. The first game Thursday matched Martin County against Frederick Douglass, two teams that beat Harlan,. The final eight teams playing Friday, included four that had played Harlan County and Harlan.
North Laurel’s 62-54 loss to George Rogers Clark was a disappointing end for Jaguars guard Reed Sheppard, this year’s probable Mr. Basketball. Sheppard played well with 23 points on eight-of-18 shooting and received a warm welcome from the Rupp Arena crowd looking forward to watching him play on the same floor next season for the University of Kentucky. Sheppard made it to the state tournament each of his last two years of high school, but lost in the first round both times. North was hurt by a 34-20 deficit on the boards
It was fourth straight first-round exit for the 13th Region champ with Knox Central losing in 2021 and 2019. Knox also won in 2020, but that tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. The last 13th Region team to win a game at Rupp Arena was Corbin, over 14th Region champ Estill County, in 2018. South Laurel was the last 13th Region team to make it to Saturday’s semifinals in 2016.
Small schools haven’t done especially well in this year’s tournament with Martin County and Lyon County the only two that qualified for the All “A” Classic in this year’s field, leading to the familiar call for basketball in Kentucky to be classed with as many as six champions, like football, or three, like track.
I’ve always been against the idea of dividing Kentucky basketball into classes and have long argued that the berth of the All “A” Classic in 1990 has made the idea obsolete. The way it is now, you could win an All “A” Classic state title and still play in the regular Sweet Sixteen as Harlan did in 1995. It’s the best of both worlds the way it is now. Small schools can win at the All A and still have a chance to play against the bigger schools and see how they compare.