Lady Cats defeat HCHS for third straight 52nd District title

By John Henson, Managing Editor


LOG MOUNTAIN — Bell County ran its district win streak to 23 games and captured its third straight championship with a 53-38 win over Harlan County on Thursday in a game that was competitive until the final four minutes when the Lady Bears’ turnovers and missed shots finally caught up with them.
“I thought the game plan was effective, but we missed a lot of easy shots and it always seems that costs you on the other end. Missed layups and free throws add up,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “We also got out of sync at times against the press. When we did what we practiced, we handled it well and got high-percentage shots. When we got away from what we talked about, they got in the passing lanes and they do a great job of that.”
The Lady Bears finished with 24 turnovers, shot 29 percent (13 of 45) from the field and hit only 11 of 21 free throws. Bell also struggled to hit shots, shooting 29 percent (18 of 62) from the field.
“It wasn’t an offensive showcase tonight on either side, but sometimes you have to find ways to grind games out,” Bell County coach David Teague said. “Give Harlan County credit because they made us earn it. I’m proud of my girls. They stepped up and played.”
The 24-7 Lady Cats again featured a balanced attack with Mataya Ausmus scoring 11 and Nadine Johnson and Neveah Kerns added 10 each. A key stat for the night was rebounds as Kerns, a senior center, dominated with 18.
“She got so many offensive rebounds for us it was unreal,” Teague said. “If she wasn’t able to keep so many rebounds alive, I don’t know if we would win this game. She was so big in there and did a great job.”
“We were allowing them to get us too far under the basket on both offense and defense and it was kicking too far over our heads,” Nolan said. “A lot of that is basketball mentality, getting that separation That’s putting time in the gym and refining your skills, just like with free throws. It’s skill development, and that’s where the kids have to put in time on their own. The game plan was effective, but we have to be able to do the little things to get over the hump. Teams like Bell County will expose you when you have breakdowns like that.”
Ella Karst scored 10 points and Taylor Lunsford added nine for the 20-11 Lady Bears, who saw their 10-game winning streak come to an end.
Both struggled to make shots in the early going as HCHS missed its first eight shots from the field and Bell failed to connect on seven of its first eight. Johnson and Ashtyn Meyers had baskets in a 5-0 run that put the Lady Cats up by six before Kylie Jones’ 3-pointer cut the deficit to 10-7 after one quarter.
Harlan County opened the second quarter with six straight points on baskets by Jaylin Smith and Karst and two free throws from Abbi Fields to go ahead 13-10 as Bell missed its first five shots. Ausmus broke the drought with a three-point play and the lead changed hands five times before Bell reeled off six straight points on three turnovers to go up by five The Lady Bears cut the deficit to 24-22 at halftime as Taylor Lunsford and Karst each hit free throws.
Harlan County had nine turnovers in the period. Kerns had 11 of her 18 rebounds in the first half to help Bell get 17 more shots than the Lady Bears.
“I told them at halftime that was the only stretch of the first half we played the way I wanted,” Teague said. “We didn’t get a lot out of our press early, but in those three or four plays we got in transition and got us a little lead. We opened up the second half with a run, but Harlan County came right back. It was a good game.”
An Ausmus 3 followed by a basket from Gracie Jo Wilder pushed the Bell lead back to seven early in the second half, but the Lady Bears fought back again. Two straight baskets by Lunsford and field goals by Jaylin Smith and Karst put HCHS on top 30-29. The Lady Cats responded with a 12-2 run and went up 43-34 going into the final period.
Bell slowed the tempo in the fourth quarter and the Lady Bears were their worst enemy with turnovers and three straight misses at the free-throw line. The Lady Bears hit only two of seven shots in the quarter.
“We would miss a layup or free throw during those runs and they would feed off that,” Nolan said. “That puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”
Nolan said a lack of fundamentals taught at the youth levels is catching up with the high school program.
“Those are things we aren’t learning at a young age that you have to teach at the high school level. It slows the learning curve,” Nolan said. “Our county has to buy in to the fact that you have to develop that at a young age. We are feeling the effects at the high school level against state competition. That intracounty mentality hampers us. When those skills aren’t developed by the high school level you are trying to play catch up.”