Dragons complete 3-game district win streak to force tie


Chris Jones

Harlan guard Jordan Akal worked up the court against Harlan County’s Daniel Carmical in Tuesday’s game. Akal scored 23 as the Dragons won 64-56.



Backed into a corner in late January with a 1-2 district record after road losses to Harlan County and Bell County, the Harlan Green Dragons had one chance left to stay alive for the 52nd District’s top seed. They had to sweep Middlesboro, Bell County and Harlan County. The final part of that three-step process was completed Tuesday as Harlan knocked off visiting Harlan County 64-56.
“They have been like that all year,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “They are tough and will fight to win. I’m proud of them. These are three big wins against three good basketball teams.”
Jaedyn Gist and Jordan Akal each scored 23 points to lead the Dragons, who improved to 18-9 overall with the win and closed their district slate at 4-2.
Harlan County, which fell to 16-10 overall and 3-2 in district action, was led by a 25-point, 12-rebound effort from sophomore guard Trent Noah. Jonah Swanner and Maddox Huff scored 11 points each. It was the fifth straight loss for the Black Bears.
“I don’t know, as a player or coach, whether I’ve been through a stretch like this where I lost five straight. Maybe I just forgot on purpose,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “But I told the kids this is not the first game of the district tournament and as bad as it stings we have to let it go and give ourselves a chance at the draw or flip or whatever. We have to take care of business Friday first.”
The Bears can force a three-way tie for the district’s top seed with a win Friday at Middlesboro. Bell County and Harlan would finish in a two-way tie if HCHS loses to Middlesboro. In case of a three-way tie, a draw would be held for the top three seeds.
One key statistic in the game proved to be the boards, where Harlan owned a 36-24 advantage, leading to numerous second- and third-chance opportunities. Gist and Will Austin teamed for 20 rebounds.
“I thought the difference in the game was we didn’t compete on the backboards like we needed to,” Jones said. “We didn’t do a good job guarding them off the dribble either, but they just whipped us on the backboards and we talked about that. We are also having a problem putting the ball in the basket.”
“Jaedyn and Will do a great job. I’ve always said Jaedyn is the most underrated player in the district or region and probably the state. He can do so many things for us,” Akal said.
Harlan led through much of the first half, including 18-14 after one quarter and 35-29 at halftime, but Noah scored seven straight points as part of an 11-0 HCHS run that included baskets by Swanner and Huff. Harlan pulled even with a 6-2 run before another basket by Huff gave the Bears a 46-44 advantage going into the final period.
“We had some defensive lapses, but you have to give credit to those guys,” Akal said. “I thought Trent put them on his back and made some plays. Our guys made adjustments on their own and that helped us.”
Harlan County took its last lead at 50-48 on a basket by Jackson Huff with 4:30 left. The game was tied at 51 when Austin gave the Dragons the lead for good with a tip-in. Gist scored on two straight trips in one-on-one situations to all but ice the win for Harlan.
“They spread us out, which is smart on their part, and they have five kids who can shoot, like we do,” Jones said. “They are hard to guard when they spread you out. If we see them again, we have to make adjustments.”
Harlan County had five of its 13 turnovers in the fourth quarter.
“We were up six late in the third quarter and we just didn’t do a good job taking care of the ball early in the fourth quarter. We went through a stretch when it was forever before we took a shot because we kept turning it over,” Jones said.
Harlan returns to action Wednesday at home against Hazard. Harlan County travels to Middlesboro on Friday for a girls/boys doubleheader.