Balanced South attack sends Harlan to first-round exit at regional



CORBIN — With all their accomplishments over the past six years, including three All “A” Classic regional titles and a 52nd District championship, the Harlan Green Dragons haven’t played their best in six trips to the Corbin Arena for the 13th Region Tournament.
Harlan suffered its sixth straight first-round exit on Wednesday in the first game of this year’s regional, falling 74-58 to a South Laurel squad that led from start to finish. The Cardinals placed five in double figures and shot 57 percent (26 of 46) for the game, compared to 38 percent (24 of 64) for the Dragons. Harlan hit only two of 17 shots from behind the 3-point line.
“We didn’t shoot it well, and at the end of the day it boils down to made and missed shots. We didn’t make that many and they did,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “They took care of the basketball and they are a real physical team and aggressive. We rebounded the ball with them but missed some point-blank shots, some shots we have to make to win a game like this.”
Sophomore guard Ashton Garland led the balanced attack for the 23-7 Cardinals with 15 points. Eli Gover and Jordan Mabe added 11 points each. Rhys England and Parker Payne added 10 each.
Senior guard Jordan scored 22 points to lead the 22-11 Dragons. Jaedyn Gist and Will Austin, both junior forwards, added 18 and 10 points, respectively.
South scored the game’s first seven points on baskets by Brayden Reed, Payne and Gover before Harlan broke through on baskets by Austin and Akal. Two baskets by eighth-grade forward Jordan Mabe helped the Cards take a 14-9 lead into the second period.
Harlan got as close as one, at 16-15, on a four-point play by Akal, who drew a foul while banking in a 3. South responded with a 15-2 run with several open jumpers, led by a 3 and a jumper by England. Harlan scored the final four points of the half to cut the deficit to 31-21 at the break.
After trading baskets with Harlan for much of the first five minutes of the second half, South reeled off eight unanswered points sparked by 3s from England Garland to build an 18-point advantage in the final minute of the third quarter. Baskets by Gist and Austin pulled Harlan within 14, at 50-36, going into the fourth quarter.
Harlan got as close as 12 in a marathon fourth quarter dominated by free throws. Harlan trailed by 13 when Akal’s high school career on a charge with 2:03 to play. Akal, a five-year starter who was named the 13th Region Player of the Year last month, finished second all-time behind 1995 Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas on the school’s scoring list with 2,629 points.
Derrick Akal, the Harlan coach and Jordan’s father, said the loss was especially tough for him.
“Yes, because he’s worked so hard to get in this position, and I’m super proud of him,” he said. “He’s taken our program, him and some other kids, to new heights. I’d like to see him go out with a win tonight, but he has another career ahead of him and, hopefully, he can get an opportunity to win a championship at that level.”
South Laurel will advance to Saturday afternoon’s semifinals to take on the winner of Jackson County/Knox Central.