HCHS overcomes early offensive woes to down Pineville in regional

By John Henson, Managing Editor

For the ninth time in 10 trips to the 13th Region Tournament, the Harlan County Lady Bears are moving on to the final four. It didn’t come easy this year though as HCHS rallied from an eight-point deficit late in the third quarter Wednesday, closing the game with a 29-14 run over the final nine minutes to win 47-40.

“Sometimes it just takes a little confidence,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “Ella (Karst) got that steal and got us going, then we saw a chance to press. It was a series of things that went our way and we got back on top. We were talking as coaches and we needed something to swing the momentum. We were fine defensively, but we finally started hitting some shots and gained some confidence.”
“The turnovers were silly turnovers. That was a momentum swinger,” Pineville coach Jamie Mills said. “We just fell apart for a while after that. They pressed us. We were ready for the press, but we just didn’t go to our spots and we didn’t run full speed at them.”
Harlan County (11-12) was led by senior guard Jacey Lewis with 16 points and freshman guard Ella Karst with 14.
Whitney Caldwell and Raigan King, both seniors, scored 15 and 14 points, respectively, for the 15-5 Lady Lions.
It was the 15th straight loss in regional tournament competition for the Lady Lions, who haven’t won a regional game since 1984. It was an especially tough loss this year with four seniors in the starting lineup
“They have been such a great group of girls, and you hate to see it end with them,” Mills said. “Our girls program has never won the All “A” and district the same year. We wanted more in the All “A” state than what we got and we wanted more here than what we got, but I told them that’s the ups and downs of life and you have to deal with that. No one can take away what they did with six straight winning seasons. I don’t think there had ever been two in a row before that.”
A Lewis jumper was the only field goal for either team in the opening four minutes as Karst also added two free throws for a 4-2 lead. A Lewis 3 pushed the Lady Bears’ advantage to 7-2. Baskets by King and Caldwell pulled Pineville within one before a Karst jumper gave HCHS a 9-6 lead after one quarter.
Harlan County’s offense disappeared in the second quarter as a Karst layup accounted for all of the Lady Bears’ points. Summer Partin’s 3-pointer to open the quarter pulled Pineville even, then Caldwell took over with six points in the final 5:12 of the half as the Lady Lions took a 17-11 lead into the break.
Harlan County shot only 25 percent (four of 16) in the half, continuing a season-long trend of offensive problems. The offensive woes were topped only by the Lady Bears’ lack of toughness on the boards with no offensive rebounds until late in the third quarter.
“We got the shots the first half, but we had no offensive rebounding. We were struggling to score, and the kids were scared to make a play and take a shot,” said Nolan, who is 5-0 in first-round games as coach and has led HCHS to three trips to the regional finals. “That’s what we focused on at halftime. We held them defensively the first half and held them when we played before.”
Pineville pushed its lead to eight early in the third quarter on a jumper by Caldwell. The HCHS offense continued to struggle with Jaylin Smith and Kassy Owens hitting two free throws for the only points in the first four minutes. King’s three-point play pushed the lead back to eight, at 23-15.
Kylie Jones came up with Harlan County’s first offensive rebound of the night, leading to two free throws by Lewis, followed by a steal and three-point play by Karst to cut the deficit to 26-23 with 1:34 left. Two free throws by Karst and a 3 from Kelly Beth Hoskins gave Harlan County a 28-26 lead going into the fourth period.
King’s basket pulled Pineville even, but another Hoskins 3 started an 8-0 run that also featured two free throws by Owens and a 3 from Lewis for a 36-28 lead with 6:03 left.
Pineville battled back as Ava Arnett and Caldwell each hit two free throws and King scored inside to cut the deficit to two. Caldwell’s 3 pulled the Lady Lions within one, but Lewis answered for Harlan County. Another Lewis 3 with 2:02 left extended Harlan County’s lead to six. Karst hit three of four free throws in the final 57 seconds to put the game away, part of a 16-of-17 night at the line for HCHS.
“We got back in the game, then they took the shots we wanted them to, but they hit them,” Mills said. “We wanted them to take that shot, but they made it. They were big. (Lewis) hit big shots. That’s what it takes. If she misses those, you never know what happens.”
“We have confidence in them taking that shot,” Nolan said. “We want them to have confidence attacking, but King did a good job challenging our shots inside. We have to do a better job against someone that size.”
Harlan County will face a monumental challenge on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the semifinals against North Laurel, one of the state’s top teams. The Lady Jaguars won 60-15 on Jan. 15 at HCHS.
“I know it’s a daunting task Saturday, but I know where we started and I’m proud of the kids for gutting it out,” Nolan said. “I’m excited about the challenge.”