Trailing Bell County by one, Harlan County’s Bella Noe had 25 seconds to work with and could have taken her time to find the perfect shot.
This, however, was not a night for the timid with two of the 13th Region’s elite teams playing their usual down-to-the-wire game, and when Noe saw an opening she took it. She went hard to the basket, scoring and drawing a foul in the process. The free throw gave the Lady Bears a three-point lead with 14.9 seconds left.
To cap off her memorable night, Noe sealed the win by blocking a Jessica Sanders shot, giving Harlan County a huge confidence-boosting win while sending Bell, ranked 12th in the state, to its first loss against a 13th Region opponent.
“The last timeout I told them we had to be ready to make a play. Tonight they were willing to make a play. Bella took it straight to the rim because she saw a lane open up,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “I was proud of the decisions we made tonight, all the way from the junior varsity game to the end
Noe was the difference in the game, scoring 20 points and grabbing eight rebounds, both team highs.
“We didn’t do a good job with her,” Bell County coach David Teague said. “We lost her on the boards and the dribble penetration. Give credit to her. She played well. I feel she is the most versatile kid they have. She handles the ball, can shoot a little outside and can post up a little bit. She is a good all-around player, and we have to do a better job on her.”
Harlan County lost in overtime at Bell County earlier in the season and had suffered several other losses to good teams in the closing seconds.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games against good teams, and we’ve not made good decisions when we needed to. That’s what we’ve been working on on practice,” Nolan said. “We worked on executing down the stretch and making the right decisions. I thought we did much better tonight. We were patient and looked for each other better. We got high-percentage shots.”
“It’s become a pretty good rivalry between us, and we knew coming in it would be a battle,” Teague said. “They do a great job of defending you, and I feel we do a pretty good job also. It was a battle and we happened to come out on the short end this time.”
Maci Morris, a junior guard who has committed to the University of Kentucky, led Bell County with 12 points on five-of-14 shooting as HCHS defensive ace Kaitlyn Stittums did her usual job of making life difficult for the opposing star. Sanders added 10 as the Lady Cats fell to 18-4 overall and 5-1 in district action.
“They are a tough team to defend because they have so many weapons,” Nolan said. “We had to stay focused. We made them have to work to get good looks. I thought our help-side defense was better, and we did a good job of keeping them off the free throw line.”
Harlan County found success early by going inside to 6-foot senior center Shannon Shackleford, who hit all three of her shots as the Lady Bears took an 11-8 lead.
Bell won the second quarter with some strong defense of its own, limiting the Lady Bears to only two baskets through the first seven minutes to build a four-point advantage. Noe pulled Harlan County even at 19-19 by halftime as she scored off a nice pass from Shackleford, then went coast-to-coast for a layup to beat the buzzer.
Sanders took over in the third quarter with a pair of 3-pointers and a jumper to help Bell build a 31-25 advantage going into the final period.
Noe scored the first five points of the fourth quarter as Harlan County opened with a 9-2 run to go ahead on a steal and layup by Brooklyn Massingill. Kelli Smith put Bell back on top with 3:33 to play. Stittums and Morris traded baskets before the Lady Cats got the ball back when Morris blocked a Massingill shot along the baseline. Bell ran the clock down to 25 seconds before Morris went to the line and missed the front end of a bonus, setting the stage for Noe’s heroics.
Harlan County will face another 13th Region heavyweight on Friday as defending champ Corbin visits. Bell County visits Pineville on Tuesday and Knox Central on Friday.
BELL COUNTY (18-4)
Jessica Sanders 4-8 0-0 10, Morgan Garnett 1-5 0-0 2, Maci Morris 5-14 2-5 12, Katrina Johnson 3-7 0-1 6, Kelli Smith 2-5 1-2 5, Sarah Collins 1-1 0-0 2, Kaitlyn Taylor 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-40 3-8 37.
HARLAN COUNTY (18-6)
Kaitlyn Stittums 1-3 1-2 3, Lauren Lee 2-6 0-0 4, Brooklyn Massingill 2-8 0-0 4, Bella Noe 9-14 1-2 20, Shannon Shackleford 4-5 0-0 8, Lindsay Branson 0-3 0-0 0, Kaitlin Evans 0-1 0-0 0, Breann Turner 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-39 2-4 39.
3-point goals: Bell County 2-8 (Sanders 2-5, Morris 0-1, Garnett 0-2), Harlan County 1-8 (Noe 1-2, Branson 0-1, Lee 0-2, Massingill 0-3). Rebounds: Bell County 24 (Morris 9, Smith 8, Johnson 3, Sanders 2, Collins 2), Harlan County 20 (Noe 8, Stittums 6, Lee 4, Massingill 2). Turnovers: Bell County 10, Harlan County 11. Fouled out: Harlan County (Stittums).