Seniors step up as Harlan County holds off Middlesboro

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Chris Jones

Harlan County guard Ella Karst drew a foul from Middlesboro’s Keevi Betts late in Monday’s game at Harlan in the 52nd District Tournament. HCHS advanced with a 49-39 win.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Jacey Lewis and Kassy Owens, two of Harlan County’s final links to its 2018 regional championship team, made sure they would be making a final trip to the 13th Region Tournament next week as seniors.
Lewis took care of the offense, scoring 21 points on an otherwise off night for the Lady Bears.
Owens led the defense, helping hold Middlesboro star Kailey Owens, the 52nd District player of the year, to nine points as HCHS pulled away in the second half for a 49-39 victory.
“I thought Kassy did a phenomenal job. That was pretty much her responsibility tonight and she filled that role,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “I thought it frustrated Owens tremendously and took them out of their rhythm. I thought we missed foul shots late that could have allowed us to relax more toward the end. I’m happy to get out of here with a win. It’s always tight on the first one.”
Other than Lewis, Harlan County struggled much of the night on offense as the Lady Bears shot 27 percent (14 of 52) from the field.
“We got the shots we wanted out of our offense, but we rushed them or were off balance. We complicate things too much instead of making the simple play,” Nolan said. “Jacey made some really big shots. I liked her aggressiveness to the basket. She actually attacked with more 2s than 3s tonight. We have to have that going into Thursday.”
Ella Karst added 11 points for the 10-11 Lady Bears, who will be making their sixth straight appearance in the regional tournament next week in Corbin.
Senior guard Grace Gent led the 9-18 Lady Jackets with 12 points. It was the 10th straight first-round district exit for Middlesboro and the 24th straight loss to Harlan County, going back to the 2011 district tournament.
Harlan County owned a 37-25 advantage on the boards last night, led by eight rebounds each from Taylor Lunsford and Owens.
“Taylor did exactly what we asked her to do,” Nolan said. “There are some technical things we can fix in the offseason, but she was in position tonight and did a great job of controlling the backboard. She also did a better job of securing the ball and hitting the outlet. I can see her confidence growing.”
Lewis scored the game’s first five points before James ignited an 8-0 Middlesboro run with three baskets. Lunsford cut the deficit to 8-7 at the end of the period with two free throws.
Kelly Beth Hoskins hit a 3-pointer to start the second quarter to begin a 14-6 run that featured three baskets by Lewis. Owens closed the half with two free throws as Middlesboro cut the deficit to 21-16 at halftime.
A more aggressive approach on defense, leading to six Middlesboro turnovers, helped Harlan County start to pull away in the third quarter. Karst, Lewis, Owens and Jaylin Smith had baskets the Lady Bears built a 32-20 advantage. Gent hit a 3-pointer and Owens converted her first basket of the game in the closing seconds of the period to pull Middlesboro within eight, at 33-25, going into the fourth quarter.
Two baskets by Lewis extended HC’s lead to 13 before Middlesboro made a final run. Baskets by Owens and Halaya Brown and two free throws by Gent cut the deficit to 40-34 with 2:33 left. Karst scored on a jumper in the lane, then added two free throws on the next possession to all but put the game away. All the points in the final two minutes were scored on the line.
Harlan County (10-11) will play Bell County, a winner last night over Harlan, for the district championship on Thursday at 7 p.m. The Lady Cats won 72-42 on Jan. 12 in their only regular-season matchup this season.
“Bell County is a very good, balanced team, able to beat you inside or outside,” Nolan said. “It’s going to take a monumental effort. I think our kids have improved since the first of the year and have learned the game and are executing better. We’re thankful to have a chance at them and redeem ourselves from the first time we played.”