Dragons rally past Barbourville for second straight All ‘A’ title

By John Henson, Managing Editor


Harlan had to break an 18-year drought last season in winning its first 13th Region All “A” Classic title since 2002.
The Green Dragons took an even tougher road to a repeat, spending three weeks in quarantine due to a coronavirus outbreak on the team before returning to practice Saturday. Harlan overcame that extended break along with a 12-point deficit in the second quarter to rally for a 59-58 win Monday over visiting Barbourville in the 13th Region All “A” Classic finals, earning a trip to Richmond for state competition later in the month.
“We hadn’t been able to have a full practice until yesterday and we talked about staying in the fight. We stayed in and fought until the end, so I’m proud of them,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “We wanted to play a lot of zone early so we’d have something at the end. I didn’t want to come out too intense and not have anything at the end of the game. I thought the second half we had some energy to play a little more man. It’s a weird year, so I don’t know how to feel. It was strange having that much time between the semifinals and finals, which made preparing for the championship game tough.”
Junior guard Jordan Akal led the second-half charge after being limited to only four points in the first half on two-of-nine shooting, finishing with 24 points. Junior forward Jaedyn Gist added 23 points and 10 rebounds.
“They started to find their rhythm. I thought Jaedyn carried us in the first half when Jordan struggled,” Akal said.
Senior guard Matthew Gray carried the Barbourville offense with 34 points, including five straight points midway through the fourth quarter after Harlan had pulled within two. Akal had two straight baskets to cut the deficit to one with 1:04 left in regulation. Two Gray free throws pushed the lead back to three before Gist scored when he deflected a pass into the basket with 25.4 seconds left.
Gist forced a turnover on an inbounds play to give the ball back to Harlan, setting up a drive into the lane by Kyler McLendon with 13.4 seconds remaining. After an exchange of turnovers, Barbourville got the ball back near midcoast with 2.1 seconds left. A jumper by Travis Scott was well off the mark as time expired.
“We played hard, but we’re young and inexperience gets you in tight games,” Barbourville coach Cody Messer said. “Your kids get a little tight, and that’s what happened to us. Harlan is a seasoned team with the same core team. Derrick does a great job and they were on their home floor. I think my kids got a little shook and tried to make some home run passes and turned it over too much. We have to learn to close out games, but I’m tickled to death with our effort.”
Barbourville started strong, hitting eight of 12 shots in the first quarter, to go up by as many as eight. Gist kept the Dragons within reach with three baskets in the period, including two in the final minute to cut the deficit to 18-12.
Both teams struggled on offense in the second quarter, but Barbourville took its biggest leasd at 27-15 on a 3-pointer by Ethan Smith with 3:31 left in the half. Harlan responded with a 5-2 run on baskets by Akal and Kaleb McLendon to close the lead to 29-20 at the break.
Gist had five baskets in the third quarter and Akal added three as Harlan closed to within two. A 3 by Gray helped Barbourville push the lead back to five, at 46-41, going into the fourth period.
Harlan (4-0) will play at Middlesboro on Tuesday in a girls/boys district doubleheader. Barbourville (6-4) will play host to Clay County on Tuesday.