Bobcats claim first district title in eight years with double-overtime win over Harlan


John Henson

Harlan’s Kyler McLendon followed a pick from Will Austin in action from the 52nd District Tournament finals on Friday.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

After back-to-back overtime wins to capture their first 52nd District Tournament title in eight years, the Bell County Bobcats, according to coach Brad Sizemore, may be a team of destiny. The Bobcats dodged defeat at least twice in an overtime win over Harlan County on Tuesday. Bell rallied five down in regulation Thursday against Harlan, then needed a late shot in overtime to force a second overtime before pulling away for an 88-78 victory.
“I just think it’s this group of kids’ season,” Sizemore said. “We’ve been through a lot the last three years. They’ve had a great attitude and we just found a way against a great team in Harlan. We could have lost if several times, but this is what these kids wanted and what we’ve been working for. I’m just happy for them, the community and this school. It’s been since 2014 in winning a district championship and we’ll go into the region as a winner, which is big going into the region. We had several guys step up and make big plays.”
“They made some tough shots and we turned the ball over and missed some shots,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Junior guard Dawson Woolum earned tournament most valuable player honors as he followed a 22-point performance against Harlan County by pouring in 38 against the Green Dragons. Woolum beat the Dragons off the dribble numerous times while hitting 11 of 12 at the free-throw line.
“He kind of got a late start coming out of football,” Sizemore said. “He did this last year, but once he got to February he started playing really well. I expected him to come on late, and he’s just put us on his back the last two games. I’m proud of him. I’m proud of all of them…It’s this entire group of seniors. We didn’t play perfect, but we just find a way.”
Woolum wasn’t the only star for the 24-5 Bobcats, who got 25 points from senior guard Dalton Stepp, including a 10-of-10 performance in the second overtime.
“He’s done that all season in big games,” Sizemore said. “He wants the ball and is not afraid to go up there and shoot it.”
We kept putting him at the free-throw line and we shouldn’t have because he made so many. I expected him to make them, and he did when they needed him to,” Akal said.
Senior forward Cameron Burnett added 15 points and 15 rebounds for the Bobcats.
Senior guard Jordan Akal led the 22-10 Dragons with 34 points. Junior forward Jaedyn Gist added 24 points before becoming one of four Harlan players to foul out.
Bell County hit 27 of 39 attempts from the line, compared to six of nine by the Dragons. Harlan hit only five of 30 attempts from the 3-point line.
Both offenses struggled early as Harlan hit four of 16 shots in the opening quarter and Bell hit four of 11, including two by Woolum as the Bobcats led 11-8 after one period.
The Bobcats maintained a three-point lead at halftime. Woolum had two more baskets in the period as Bell led 24-21. Gist hit three of five shots in the quarter to lead Harlan.
Bell hit seven of its first eight shots in the third quarter, led by four straight from Woolum, to build an eight-point lead midway through the period. Harlan fought back behind Akal and Gist to cut the deficit to 47-44 by the end of the quarter.
A 3-pointer by Akal followed by a three-point play from Gist gave Harlan a 55-51 lead with five minutes left and the Dragons appeared to have the momentum. Harlan led by five after a basket by Will Austin with three minutes left, but Stepp took over at that point with a 3-pointer and two free throws in a 6-0 run that put Bell up by one. Akal had two baskets sandwiched around a basket by Woolum in a wild 15-second flurry that left Harlan up by one. Woolum drew a foul with 5.5 seconds to play and hit one of two to force the first overtime.
Gist had two baskets in overtime sandwiched around a four-point play from Woolum. Gist scored with 36 seconds left and Hayden Callebs answered to force the second overtime.
Bell took a four-point lead early in the second overtime, but Harlan was within two with 1:35 left after two free throws from Akal. Stepp hit six free throws and Woolum hit two in an 8-2 run that put the game away.
Harlan will go in as a district runner-up for the fifth time in six years and will try to end a regional-tournament drought that stretches back to 2000. The Green Dragons will play South Laurel in the opening game on Wednesday.
“We don’t have any choice,” Akal said. “We have to put this one behind us and prepare for whoever we play next week.”


Harlan senior guard Jordan Akal was chased down the court by Bell County’s Carter McCune in action from the 52nd DIstrict finals Friday. (John Henson)