Bears come through in clutch to knock off Bell

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Chris Jones

Harlan County senior guard Tyler Cole drew a foul in 52nd District Tournament action Tuesday against Bell County. Cole scored 19 points in the Bears’ 56-47 victory.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

Michael Jones and the Harlan County Black Bears knew what was coming in their first-round matchup against Bell County on Tuesday in the 52nd District Tournament at Harlan after seeing the Bobcats slow the ball down and almost upset them in last year’s tournament.
Knowing what is coming and stopping it are two entirely different issues, and through over three quarters the outcome was very much in doubt.
The Bears found themselves down by two points early in the fourth quarter but played their best in the clutch, hitting all six shots from the field in the period and six of their first seven free throws in a deciding 17-3 run that sent them to a 56-47 win and into Friday’s championship game against Harlan.
“There was nothing they did to us defensively that we haven’t prepared for all week long,” Jones said. “You have to give them credit. They stayed in our face and tried to take away our shooters.”
“I thought the kids played their hearts out. I thought we did what we could do. We knew how good they were coming into the game, and I thought for three and a half quarters we played it beautifully,” Bell County coach Brad Sizemore said. “We made some big plays on both ends of the floor. You have to give credit to Harlan County. They have a good team and are very well coached. I have a lot of respect for their program.”
With both teams playing a possession by possession game, much of the night came down to a two-on-two matchup.
Tyler Cole scored 19 points and Trent Noah added 17 to pace the 19-4 Bears.
“Cole did what seniors are supposed to do. He stepped up and made some big shots,” Jones said. “We’ve been working on that in practice when someone face guards Trent. We’ve been working on Cole handling it in practice, and he did a great job tonight.”
The 16-11 Bobcats were led by guard Dawson Woolum with 22 points and Cameron Burnett with 14.
But with the Bears clinging to a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter after two straight baskets by Cole, the Huff brothers hit back-to-back back-breaking 3-pointers. Jackson Huff hit from one corner with 3:06 to play, then Maddox Huff hit from the opposite corner with 2:32 remaining and HCHS was in control, up 10 with two minutes left after Noah scored on a strong drive to the basket. Noah put the game away by hitting four straight free throws.
“They made some big shots. It was a lot closer than the score indicated,” Sizemore said. “We got behind and gambled and tried to double them. Those kids hit some big shots.”
“We could have folded when we got down in the third quarter and then again in the fourth quarter. This bunch works on situations, and I trust them in those situations to make the right decisions,” Jones said. “I thought they did make the right decisions, and they knocked down some big shots.”
Harlan County led 12-8 after one quarter and 22-19 at halftime, but Bell opened the second half with an 8-0 run. Harlan County pulled even at 34-all going into the fourth quarter as Jonah Swanner and Cole had two baskets for the Bears, while Noah and Josh Turner added one each.
Two straight baskets by Woolum early in the fourth quarter helped Bell take a 39-37 lead. Woolum sparked the Bobcats in the second half of the season after a 2-5 start.
“You bring a new coach in last year when he was a sophomore, and it took a while to adjust to the way we want to play,” Sizemore said. “He’s gotten better defensively and better attacking the basket. At times in the last month he’s put us on his back and carried us.”
It was the 15th straight win for HCHS against Bell, stretching back to the 2015 season. The Bobcats have fallen in the opening round of the district tournament for five straight years, but Bell could bring back a 10-man senior class from this year’s team and will likely be ranked among the regional favorites in 2022.
“I think we’re right there, and I think we’ll get there. It’s not about moral victories, but we have one senior who will be hard to replace and a lot of other kids coming back,” Sizemore said. “It will depend on how hard we want to work at it. We have to get in the gym and get a lot better.”