Lady Jags roll into regional semifinals with victory over Harlan County


Les Nicholson

North Laurel’s Hailee Valentine worked around Harlan County guard Ella Karst for a shot during 13th Region Tournament action Monday. Valentine scored 21 to lead North Laurel in a 69-40 win. Karst le HCHS with 19 points.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

CORBIN — Familiar foes in the 13th Region Tournament, the Harlan County Lady Bears and North Laurel Lady Jaguars split regional championship games in 2018 and 2019 and one or the other team has played in the regional finals the past six years. The Lady Jaguars are only one win away from making it back to the finals for the fifth straight year after rolling past Harlan County 69-40 on Monday in a first-round game at the Corbin Arena.
“We had good starts in both halves, but at the end of the day we didn’t put four quarters together,” said North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan. “We jumped out 22-9 lead, but the whole game was kind of a lull for us. They were patient in the second quarter and got some easy shots after we exerted so much energy in the first quarter.”
Senior guard Hailee Valentine scored 21 points to lead the 24-5 Lady Jaguars, who are a perfect 12-0 against 13th Region competition this season. Junior guard Emily Sizemore added 18 points and 21 rebounds, part of North”s 45-31 advantage on the boards.
“When your point guard is having to carry the load with 21 rebounds, that’s a lot,” Mahan said. “I expect our team to do an overall better job as a team rebounding, but right now it’s about survive and advance, and we did that against a very well-coached and much improved Harlan County team. I’ve always had the utmost respect for (Harlan County) coach (Anthony) Nolan. I think he’s one of the best coaches in the region, and he prepares his team extremely well. I know he’s had a lot going on, but he still had his team ready tonight. I thought they gave us a battle.”
Harlan County was led by sophomore guard Ella Karst with 19 points.
The Lady Bears stayed within striking distance for a half, trailing 30-19 at the break despite missing at least a half dozen shots under the basket.
“Those are some of the things we have to work on in the off-season. If we hit those layups and free throws, it’s probably a two-possession game at halftime and it’s more manageable,” Nolan said. “They have so many weapons. A team like North Laurel will expose you if you have breakdowns.”
North looked like It was headed for a rout early as Valentine hit a pair of 3-pointers in a 12-2 run to open the game. Karst and Kylie Jones helped slow the the Lady Jags’ momentum with 3-pointers and North led by 13 after one period.
The pace of the game slowed considerably in the second quarter and the Lady Bears were able to hold their own, outscoring North 10-8 in the quarter with the help of another 3 from Karst and two baskets by Jaylin Smith to trail by 11 at the break.
North started the second half much like the first, scoring the first 11 points, led by six from Sizemore extend its lead to 22. Karst broke the drought for HCHS and scored eight of the Lady Bears’ 10 points in the period. Sizemore had the final four points of the quarter for North and the lead was 50-29 after three periods.
HCHS got as close as 16 in the fourth quarter as Karst and Taylor Lunsford teamed on a 7-0 run. Valentine answered with another 3 as North pulled away again, going on a 17-4 run to close the game.
North Laurel advances to Friday’s semifinals to take on Corbin at 6 p.m.
Harlan County (20-12) closed the season with two straight losses after winning the previous 10 games, exceeding most preseason expectations by reaching the 20-win plateau after falling to 11-13 last year.
“I saw some bright spots, but we weren’t consistent,” Nolan said. “There are things we have to learn as far as understanding the game and how it’s played. I’m extremely proud of the growth of this team from the beginning to the end of the season. I can see us being a realistic threat next year if we pick up where we left off. This was primarily a JV team, other than a couple of players, who made the transition to varsity. They had to game-time experience and learn how to play together and develop some toughness. There is still a gap, but I think we made huge strides in narrowing that gap. I think we have the potential to be better next year, but we have to go to work and refine some things in the offseason. Otherwise, those missed free throws and layups are exposed by teams like North Laurel.”

North Laurel’s Brooke Nichelson dribbled around Harlan County’s Taytum Griffin on Monday in 13th Region Tournament action. (Les Nicholson)