Lady Jaguars coast past HCHS in regional semifinals

By John Henson, Managing Editor

CORBIN — North Laurel earned its fourth straight trip to the 13th Region Tournament finals by using a familiar formula in a 65-38 win over Harlan County in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
“Defense and rebounding have to be our staples, no matter who we are playing,” North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan said. “That’s who we are and what we have to rely upon. The good thing about playing on a college floor is you get that separation and our athleticism is seen here.”
North Laurel’s athleticism was on display from the start, reeling off 11 straight points after Harlan County opened with the first basket of the game. HCHS spent the rest of the afternoon trying to catch up from the slow start and found itself down 15-6 after one quarter and 30-13 by halftime.
“In the first half, if we make the simple pass like we did the second half, it’s probably a two- or three-possession game,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “We had too many careless turnovers by either dribbling it off our knee or forcing a bad pass. Once we started hitting the middle on the reversal in the second half, we got some high percentage shots. Those are signs of maturity, and North has the ability to expose any weakness you have.”
Junior guard Hailee Valentine sparked the Lady Jags’ fast start and finished with a game-high 23 points. Eighth-grade guard Bella Sizemore added 10 points.
Harlan County was led by junior forward Jaylin Smith and senior forward Kassy Owens with eight points each.
North Laurel (23-4) will advance to play South Laurel on Monday at 7 p.m. in the regional finals.
The victory over HCHS was the second straight in regional competition for North, which defeated the Lady Bears in the 2019 regional finals. Harlan County defeated North in the semifinals in 2010, 2012 and 2017 and in the finals in 2018.
“I think coach Nolan is one of the best coaches around, boys or girls,” Mahan said. “It was a great win and we’ll celebrate for a little bit until we find out who we’ll play Monday.”
While the Lady Bears will lose four players to graduation, including three starters, Nolan likes the potential going into the 2021 season, if his players get to work to improve.
“I think our kids have grown a lot in many areas of the game, and I’m blessed to be able to have a chance to be with them,” Nolan said. “We are always looking down the road. It’s all about individual skill development. You will be exposed when you get to this level of the region if you aren’t ready to get to the basket and score or shoot a perimeter shot. That’s why the offseason is so important for these kids.”