Bell County’s basketball program is accustomed to winning championships — the Bobcats won 11 straight district titles from 1998 to 2008 and were 13th Region champions in 2011. So getting knocked out in the district semifinals by Middlesboro in each of the past two season hasn’t set too well.
The Bobcats broke that two-year title drought, and earned a measure of revenge, on Friday with an emphatic 76-50 win on the Jackets’ home court in the 52nd District championship game.
Middlesboro jumped out to an 11-4 lead, but the Bobcats turned the tide by getting physical in the paint and winning the rebounding battle.
By halftime Bell County was up 32-25 . The Jackets pulled back within seven late in the third quarter on a putback by Austin Poindexter and two free throws by Brandon Hale that made it 46-39. But the Bobcats scored the final six points of the third quarter, including the last four by Tournament MVP Jake Patterson. They led 51-39 going into the fourth and pulled away late for the 26-point win.
Patterson finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds and six assists as part of a balanced Bobcat offense. He also played a big role in holding Poindexter to nine points in the game.
“The last two years we’ve been put out in the first round of the district by Middlesboro. When we saw we were going to be the first seed and Middlesboro was the third, we wanted to meet them in the championship for a little bit of payback,” Patterson said. “I think the key for us was in the second half we started to play more physical, took it at them. We started playing better defense and took care of the ball.”
Josh Asher hit all seven of his shots from the field to finish with a game-high 16 points. Chase Woolum added 15, Tyler Potter 13 and Zach Partin eight.
“Last year against them we had a 23-point lead and we kind of let them dictate the game and we kind of backed down a little bit. Tonight, our guys were hungry and they wanted it and I’m happy for them,” Bell coach Lewis Morris said. “I’ve won districts and regions before, this group here needed it. Hopefully we can continue to play well next week and have a shot at going to Rupp Arena. That’s what the season’s about. You can’t have a bad game now.”
Donnie Foister led Middlesboro with 13 points and Hale added 12. Those two combined for ten first quarter points with Hale’s 3-pointer putting the Jackets up 16-13 after one. Justin Miracle opened the second quarter with a 3 for a 19-13 Jacket lead.
“They were hitting shots and we kind of lost some people early. We kept our poise, executed and got back into it,” Morris said. “We rebounded the ball real well and we were more physical tonight than we’ve been in a while. Playing teams that are bigger than us, you’ve got to bring it. I thought the kids did a great job tonight of bringing it.”
Asher scored seven of his points in the second quarter, including a 3 that gave the Bobcats their first lead at 24-23 with 3:14 to go in the half. That came in the middle of a 7-2 run with Poindexter out of the game after getting fouled hard going after a rebound.
Middlesboro missed their only two shot attempts the rest of the half while also turning the ball over twice and missing the front end of the bonus on two occasions.
Ben Collett added two baskets off the bench for the Bobcats and when Middlesboro was called for their second technical of the game, a Potter free throw pushed the lead to 32-25 at the break.
“Our guys didn’t respond well to the physicality. We lost our composure and they were able to go into halftime with a seven-point lead,” Jacket coach Russell Thompson said. “They got us out of our original game plan and with the guard play that they have it’s hard to keep them out of the paint and they were able to run the lead up.”
Asher added five more points in the third quarter and the Bobcats also got four each from Woolum, Potter and Patterson as they extended the lead.
“Chase played a really good game. He was aggressive taking shots and getting into the lane,” Morris said. “Josh Asher played extremely well, they all did. Cody Ferguson and Ben Collett off the bench when we got into a little foul trouble, everybody played their role and did their job that’s why we won the game.”
The Jackets closed to within 54-43 on a Foister basket with 6:05 to play. He was fouled on the play, but missed the free throw. Patterson grabbed that rebound and then converted a three-point play on the following possession to push the lead to 14. Ferguson hit two free throws, Asher knocked down a jumper and two free throws from Woolum made it 63-43 with 4:29 to go to put the game out of reach.
Bell County shot 50 percent for the game (26-of-52) while Middlesboro made just 16 of 45 shots. Both teams hit half of their free throws with the Bell going 22-of-44 from the line and MHS going 14-of-28. The Bobcats enjoyed a 37-24 rebounding edge.
“We didn’t have our best shooting night, we’re certainly capable of shooting it better than that,” Thompson added. “We just never found the leadership we needed to come back from that second quarter. With the environment tonight, once our guys saw that they weren’t going to win the game their emotions got the best of them. We’ve talked all year about playing through that and being mentally tougher to be a championship team. I guess that’s why we ended up as the runners up this year.”
Both Bell County (20-10) and Middlesboro (10-20) will advance to next week’s 13th Region Tournament at The Arena in Corbin.
The Bobcats will play either Barbourville, Williamsburg or Jackson County in the first round while the Jackets will face either Knox Central, Corbin or Clay County. The draw takes place on Sunday at The Arena in Corbin.
“We’ll have the opportunity to play in region, we made it to the second round there last year and that was an upset when we beat Corbin,” Thompson said. “Maybe we can pull it together and do something similar this year and make a little run at it.”
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Joining Patterson on the All-Tournament team were fellow Bobcat starters Potter, Asher, Woolum and Partin. Middlesboro was represented by Foister, Poindexter, Hale and Tyler Prater. Rounding out the team were Harlan’s Aaron Simpson and Manny Davis and Harlan County’s Cameron Carmical and Treyce Spurlock.
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BELL COUNTY (76) — Chase Woolum 15, Tyler Potter 13, Zach Partin 8, Jake Patterson 10, Josh Ahser 16, Ben Collett 4, Cody Ferguson 4, Ethan Gambrel 0, Donovan Napier 2, Jacob Hunley 2, Vic Morris 2, Trent Lefevers 0, Cody Carnes 0, Dalton Callebs 0, Adam Jones 0.
MIDDLESBORO (50) — Brandon Hale 12, Donnie Foister 13, Austin Poindexter 9, Tyler Prater 4, Major Edwards 2, Justin Miracle 5, Tyshon Kincaide 0, Devon Lefevers 3, Abhishek Singh 1, Josh Buttery 1, Matthew Mike 0, Jared Gullett 0.