Bobcats end district drought with overtime win over HC

By John Henson, Managing Editor

LOG MOUNTAIN — After five straight 52nd District Tournament losses with a senior-dominated roster on their homecourt, the Bell County Bobcats had more than a little pressure going into their showdown with Harlan County on Tuesday in the opening round of the tournament.
After blowing a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and facing a two-point deficit in overtime, the Bobcats still found a way to survive as Dawson Woolum converted a three-point play with 5.6 seconds left for a 55-54 victory
“I’ve been doing this a while, and this is probably the biggest win, including the regional championship (at North Laurel), that I’ve been involved in because this group of kids has been striving to get to this point. We’ve had a lot of heartbreaking losses, but they stayed the course. I’m happy for these seven seniors,” Bell County coach Brad Sizemore said. “A lot of people probably didn’t think we had a chance to win and rightfully so because Harlan County has a great team with great players and one of the best coaches in the state of Kentucky. I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do. We could have folded several times, especially in overtime. Our guys just kept believing and making big plays. We feel this is our year to get something done, and I’m really happy for these kids.”
Woolum scored 22 points to lead the 23-5 Bobcats, including a five-of-five shooing performance in the second quarter as Bell erased a 13-5 deficit after one quarter by outscoring the Bears 20-5. Woolum continually beat the Bears off the dribble out of a spread offense.
“We are who we are and we can’t get in a running game with those guys and let them get a bunch of 3s,” Sizemore said. “They played great defense on us the first quarter. We dug a hole and missed some shots, but we went on a run in the second quarter. This group has done that this year. When we’re bad, we’re bad, but we can get on a roll.”
“It all comes down to making shots. When we came in at halftime we were talking about them shooting 61 percent in the first half and we were shooting 40 percent and both of us were shooting layups. We missed a lot of shots right around the rim,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said.
Trent Noah scored 19 points and Maddox Huff added 14 to lead the 19-11 Black Bears. Jonah Swanner chipped in with 13 points.
Huff, Noah and Swanner sparked the Bears’ fourth-quarter comeback as they slowly chipped away. Huff’s 3 cut the deficit to three with 1:48 left. Two free throws by Woolum pushed the lead to five, and Bell had a chance to put the game away after a Harlan County turnover, but senior forward Cameron Burnett was called for a charge. Noah’s basket made it a three-point game, then Dalton Stepp hit one of two at the line with 26 seconds to play. A three-point play by Noah pulled the Bears within one and took Burnett out of the game with his fifth foul. Woolum hit one of two with 13 seconds to play, then Noah drove to the basket for the tying basket in the closing seconds.
With Bell losing its only starter above 6-foot when Burnett fouled out, the Bears went to Noah, at 6-6, for an easy basket to open overtime. Bell then decided to spread the floor and hold for one shot. At first, the strategy appeared to backfire when Swanner was able to force a turnover with about 15 seconds left, but Bell was able to knock the ball free as Swanner headed down court. Woolum found an opening in the HCHS defense and scored and drew a foul. Noah was able to drive into the paint with a chance to win the game as time ticked away, but his short jumper bounced off the rim.
“I just felt it was a common sense because Cameron (Burnett) had fouled out and if we had kept playing I think Trent would have gone to the basket every time and laid it in,” Sizemore said of his decision to hold the ball. “I didn’t want to get down seven or eight. I’ve done that before in tournament games. If they wanted to let us hang around, we were going to try to hold it. I thought about a timeout with 20 seconds, but we just went with it. It was kind of a busted play, but Dawson is a winner. He just stepped up and wanted the ball and made a huge play.”
Jones blamed himself for not using his last timeout after the Bears gained possession with a two-point lead in overtime.
“I’m proud of the kids for battling back and giving us a chance to win in overtime,” he said. “This loss in overtime is on me 100 percent. I don’t want anybody to blame any of our kids. When Jonah got the steal, I should have called timeout.”
Sizemore dedicated the victory to one of his coaching colleagues.
“One of my former assistants at North Laurel, Bobby Bowling, passed away last week after a battle with a cancer,” he said. “I told the guys in the office today that I felt if there was a way we would pull it out for him. I’m happy we got it done for him because I know how much basketball meant to him.”
Harlan County loses only one starter to graduation and will be ranked among the region’s top teams again next season. Jones hopes the Bears can learn from the loss.
“The core is here for us to make a run the next couple of years,” he said. “We thought we had a chance to be standing in Rupp Arena this year. This is going to sting.”