Dragons dominate glass on the way to tourney win over Middlesboro


Chris Jones

Middlesboro’s Ethan Barton and Harlan’s Kyler McLendon battled for possession of the ball in 52nd DIstrict Tournament action Tuesday. McLendon scored 17 points as the Dragons advanced with a 66-58 victory.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

The Harlan Green Dragons have developed an effective Plan B on nights they aren’t shooting well. They often just keep shooting until one goes in.
Harlan shot 39 percent (24 of 62) from the field Tuesday in a 52nd District Tournament matchup against Middlesboro but owned a 41-27 advantage on the boards in building an 18-point lead on the way to a 66-58 win.
“We’ve done a great job all year rebounding,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “After we lost (Jon) Eldridge from last year, we’ve challenged our guys to step up in that area. When we aren’t shooting well, or even turning it over, we have to be able to rebound.”
The Dragons weren’t especially sharp as a heavy favorite against the fourth-seeded Jackets, who finished the season at 5-15.
“The old statement is ‘survive and advance.’ Three of my guys have been off a week and a half and their timing was off a little bit, but I will take my hat off to Middlesboro,” Akal said. “I thought Middlesboro played hard for 32 minutes, and coach (Lewis) Morris will always have his team prepared.”
Junior guard Jordan Akal scored 30 points to lead the 16-5 Dragons. Sophomore guard Kyler McLendon added 17 points.
“Jordan has that ability to carry us, but I think we have to execute better as a team and get all five guys on the same page,” Akal said. “Jordan hasn’t practiced since the Red Bird game (last week) due to the ankle. We’re trying to protect that ankle, so I thought he got a little tired and I tried to give him some breaks. We’re lucky to get out of here with a win.”
Senior forward Eric Helton led the Jackets with 24 points. Freshman guard Cayden Grigsby added 10.
Middlesboro opened in a triangle-and-two focused on Akal and Kaleb McLendon, and the strategy seemed to push Harlan out of sync for a time. The Dragons didn’t shoot especially well early, but they shot often thanks to a 17-7 advantage on the boards, leading to 20 shots in the period. Kyler McLendon had three baskets in the quarter, then Akal found the touch in the final minute with two baskets as Harlan built a 17-7 lead.
The Jackets pulled within three early in the second quarter on baskets by Trey King and Eric Helton, but Harlan answered 12-2 run led by 3s from Akal and Jaeden Gist to go up by 13. The Dragons’ offense cooled off from that point as Middlesboro closed with five straight points on baskets by Helton and West to cut the deficit to 29-21 at halftime.
A Helton try pulled Middlesboro within five early in the second half before Akal heated up, hitting three straight 3-pointers as the lead grew to as many as 16 points. Kyler McLendon added two baskets as Harlan led 48-33 going into the fourth quarter.
Akal sparked another run in the fourth quarter and the lead was at 18, at 60-42, with 3:19 left. Helton hit four of five shots to lead a late surge as the Jackets cut the final deficit to eight.
Harlan will play Harlan County in the district championship game on Friday at 7 p.m.

Harlan guard Jordan Akal went up for two of his 30 points on Tuesday in the Green Dragons’ 66-58 win over Middlesboro. (Chris Jones)