Dragons end district drought by rallying past HCHS in finals

By John Henson, Managing Editor

A long, proud tradition of basketball success at Harlan High School had taken a break through much of the first two decades of the 21st Century, a 21-year drought that grew more painful during second-place finishes each of the past four years.
Harlan junior Jordan Akal was the point guard on the last three teams and had grown accustomed to heartbreak in the district finals — first on a last-second shot against Harlan County in 2018, then in hard-fought games against Middlesboro in 2019 and Harlan County again last March. Akal was finally on the other side Friday as the Dragons rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to win 61-55.
“It feels so good because I’ve been here three years and we got to the championship game each time and lost,” said Akal, who earned tournament most valuable player honors with a 15-point, eight-rebound effort.
While breaking through for the first district title since 2000 was big for the Harlan program, coach Derrick Akal said it wasn’t something the Dragons focused on during the season.
“Based on what everyone has been through this year, it makes it extra special, but we try not to dwell on the past,” he said, “We just try to move forward and do the best we can do. I thought we played well tonight and I’m proud of my guys.”
Akal was the focus of the HCHS defense with Jackson Huff chasing him much of the game, and he didn’t have his first basket until over 13 minutes into the game. Several other Dragons filled the void with big games, including junior forward Will Austin with 16 points and eight rebounds. Jaedyn Gist and Kaleb McLendon added 13 points each, with Gist grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds.
“We had a lot of people step for us tonight — Will, Kyler, everyone,” said Akal.
Harlan had yet another big night on the boards, outrebounding Harlan County 37-29, which led to 17 more shots from the field
“We played well defensively on the first shot, but they killed us on the boards,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “I told them at halftime if we had rebounded and been tougher we’d have been up 20 instead of 10. That’s what the game boils down to. They were tougher than us on the backboards.”
Senior guard Tyler Cole, last year’s most valuable player, had another strong tournament and finished with.a team-high 19 points against Harlan. Freshman point guard Trent Noah added 12 points for the 19-5 Bears.
Cole hit a couple of 3-pointers early as HCHS grabbed an 8-2 lead. Harlan reeled off seven straight points behind Austin to go up by one, but Maddox Huff came off the Harlan County bench to hit two 3-pointers and put the Bears up 16-14.
Led by two baskets each from Cole and Noah, Harlan County built a 33-23 lead at halftime even though Harlan got up 15 more shots.
“I thought it was sort of like what happened to them the first time (a 74-50 Harlan win during the regular season). We just didn’t hit shots,” said the Harlan coach. “I thought we got some good looks, but I also thought we didn’t have discipline at times. We started hitting shots the second half, and I thought that was the difference.”
Harlan scored the first seven points of the third quarter, but HCHS stayed on top with the help of two baskets from sophomore guard Daniel Carmical. Baskets by Austin and Gist late in the period helped Harlan cut the deficit to 45-43 going into the final period.
After missing nine of 10 3-point attempts in the first quarters, Kaleb McLendon hit two big ones in the fourth quarter. The first gave Harlan its first lead since the first period, but Noah, Cole and Jackson Huff answered for the Bears and HCHS led by four with 4:08 left. McLendon’s second trey of the period ignited a 12-2 run to end the game.
“We have confidence in Kaleb,” Akal said. “He can miss 10 straight, but he believes he will hit the 11th. He made some big shots and some big free throws.”
After hitting all six of their fourth-quarter shots in a win over Bell County on Tuesday, the Bears missed eight of 12 shots in the fourth quarter against Harlan.
“For whatever reason, our bunch mentally broke down. I drew something up during a timeout and we did something totally opposite and it was a huge turnover in the fourth quarter,” Jones said. “We also had some mental lapses on defense. There were some things we should have done that we didn’t do, like letting Austin catch it in the middle. He killed us in there.
“They were correctable things, but it’s too late in the season to talk about correctable mistakes. We have to take a scouting report and use it and do what the coach tells you to do.”
Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament next week at the Corbin Arena.
“We still have a chance to get to Rupp Arena and that is our top priority,” Jones said. “I wasn’t too negative after the game. We want to soak this in tonight and start tomorrow on making a run at the region.”