HCHS leads all the way to keep home streak alive against Dragons

By John Henson, Managing Editor


Winning streaks of 29 games in the regular season and five in the 52nd District Tournament over their cross-town rivals were ended a year ago when the Harlan Green Dragons beat the Harlan County Black Bears twice during the 2021 season.
Harlan County protected the one win streak it still had left over the Green Dragons on Saturday at the HCHS gym, leading from start to finish on the way to an 87-74 victory that ran HC’s home streak against HHS to 15-0.
Unlike a year ago, the Black Bears did not appear to be intimidated by an athletic and experienced Harlan squad that had blown through three opponents last week by an average of over 40 points to win a third straight All “A” Classic regional title. Harlan County raced to a 9-0 lead to start the game and Harlan could get no closer than 10 in the final three quarters.
“There’s a lot of pressure put on these kids for this game, but I could tell this morning they really were locked in,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “I knew if we could come out and make some shots early we would be hard to beat. We’re growing up right before our eyes. We’re showing some intensity and toughness. We talked this morning and during timeouts that if we could keep them off the offensive boards we’d give ourselves a chance.”
Harlan County (12-4) placed all five starters in double figured, led by Jonah Swanner and Trent Noah with 24 points each. Jackson Huff scored 15. Daniel Carmical and Maddox Huff added 10 each as the Bears improved to 2-1 in district action.
“Everyone played well and we shot it well,” Jones said. “Our guys were completely locked in and ready for this game after what happened last year.”
The 12-6 Dragons were again led by senior guard Jordan Akal, who poured in 39 points. Kaleb McLendon and Jaedyn Gist added 15 and 10 points, respectively.
“We got down early and they were shooting very well. They came out like a buzzsaw,” said Harlan assistant coach Will Clem, who led the team with coach Derrick Akal sidelined by illness. “We were here without our head coach. It’s not an excuse, but he probably would have done some things differently than I did. I liked the way our kids fought. They showed competitive character to the end and finished with effort and class. We just have to put this one behind us and go to Bell on Tuesday.”
Noah hit two 3s and Maddox Huff added one as HCHS scored the first nine points. Akal broke the drought for Harlan, but two Jackson Huff treys pushed the HCHS lead to 10 as the teams traded baskets the rest of the way with the Bears up 27-17 after a fast-paced opening period.
“Jackson did a great job knocking down shots the first half,” Jones said. “He got beat a couple of times on defense in the first half, and I told him I didn’t care if he got a rebound as long as Gist didn’t score, and I thought he did a tremendous job on him the second half.”
Swanner took over in the second quarter, hitting five straight shots, including two 3-pointers as HCHS built a 20-point advantage before Harlan scored the final five points on baskets by Akal and Gist to cut the deficit to 48-33 at halftime.
“When you can put four guys around Jonah who can shoot like ours can, then Jonah becomes a matchup problem because of his speed and the way he can get to the basket,” Jones said.
Harlan County scored the six points of the second half for a 21-point lead, but then Harlan reeled off eight straight sparked by two 3-pointers from Kaleb McLendon. Kyler McLendon and Kaleb McLendon hit back-to-back 3s to get Harlan as close as 11 before Swanner scored, then found Tristan Cooper for a basket to give the Bears a 64-41 lead after three quarters.
Two more 3s by Kaleb McLendon pulled Harlan within 10 before Jackson Huff broke the run with a 3 of his own. Akal carried the Harlan offense down the stretch, but the Bears were able to answer and pulled back out to a 15-point lead.
“We had some defensive breakdowns,” Clem said. “We kept trying to get it below 10 and see what happens. We just couldn’t get any closer. We never let any pressure come to bear.”
Both teams return to district action Tuesday as Harlan County plays host to Middlesboro and Harlan travels to Bell County.