Playing a murderers’ row schedule in the season’s opening week was a gamble that Derrick Akal was willing to take, despite the youth of his Harlan Lady Dragons.
He cashed in Monday with a thrilling 45-42 overtime win over Harlan County in the opening round of the 52nd District Tournament.
Harlan (18-11) played hard and well early against powerhouse teams such as Bell County, Whitley County and Southwestern, but that didn’t stop the Lady Dragons from starting the season 0-3 And for a team with two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, the slow start could have been a confidence crusher.
“Early in the season we played some really tough teams and played 15 games in 30 days in December. We won the Leslie County tournament and the All “A” Classic regional, and I think it prepared us for this kind of atmosphere,” Akal said.
Both teams were strong defensively Monday, but Harlan was stronger against a team that has been ranked at or near the top of the region in defense the past two seasons. The Lady Bears were limited to 33 percent (12 of 36) shooting for the game with only one player reaching double figures.
“I’ve talked about it the past two weeks. Our defense has been questioned, and I’ve questioned our defense,” Akal said. “I thought if we could get stops and not give up offensive rebounds, we could win the game. I thought we struggled offensively at times, but we didn’t give up second shots and didn’t turn it over. I thought that was a big key.”
The Lady Dragons trailed by six at halftime before using a 10-0 run to start the third quarter. The game was tied at 31-31 after three quarters and 37-37 after four.
Harlan took the lead on a basket by Jourdan Ledford off the opening tip. The Lady Bears pulled even on two free throws by Shannon Shackleford with 1:01 left and had a chance to take the lead after Torri Mitchell missed. Harlan County turned the ball over on a pass inside to Shackleford, who drew her fifth foul while battling to get the ball back. Mitchell hit one of two at the line with 22.1 seconds left.
Harlan County called a timeout with nine seconds left to set up the last shot. Junior guard Bella Noe went to her left as she drove to the basket, lofting a shot off the glass over Harlan’s Emma Bianchi. The shot sailed too high with the 6-foot Lady Dragon freshman defending. Masie Charles came up with the rebound and hit both free throws to close the scoring.
“If the shot goes in it’s a different outcome, but you can look at mistakes here and there all through the game,” Harlan County coach Anthony Nolan said. “It’s a shame one of us had to go home. It’s two evenly matched teams with good kids on both sides of the ball. It’s such an intense rivalry.”
The Lady Dragons’ two star freshmen played above their years to send Harlan to the regional tournament for the first time in three years. Point guard Jordan Brock shook off a slow start to finish with a team-high 14 points, including three straight baskets to start the second half. Bianchi had 11 points and eight rebounds, but she made her biggest contribution on defense matched against Noe, who was limited to eight points on one-of-eight shooting.
“I challenged Emma that it’s not good enough to be good because she could be great on both ends of the floor,” Akal said. “She took the challenge to guard Bella. I thought she was the best offensive player off the dribble on that team. Emma was very disciplined defensively.”
Shackleford may have played the best game of her career in her last game as a Lady Bear, scoring 20 points, almost half of her team’s total on the night.
“Shannon has come a long way from where we were last year with the (knee) injury,” Nolan said. “I thought that was our obvious advantage because they were focusing so much on Brooklyn (Massingill) and Bella. She was able to convert a lot of plays for us.”
“We were worried about Shannon and (sixth man) Lindsay Branson coming into this game,” Akal said. “We did a good job with Lindsay, but Shannon really battled. We talked on the bench during timeouts that she was going to war and we had to go to war with her.”
The Lady Dragons started slow, struggling against an extended 2-3 zone that took away their inside attack for the entire first half. Harlan shot only 23 percent (five of 22) in the first half, but the Lady Bears were unable to take control.
“That was the problem with the first half. We had numerous opportunities to extend the lead and we never did,” Nolan said. “I told them they would make a run and we should have extended the lead. We didn’t convert. We’ve had trouble scoring at times this year. From that point on, it was back and forth. It kept them in the game and gave them confidence.”
Harlan attempted only one shot inside the 3-point arc in the first quarter but stayed close as Ledford, Charles and Mitchell each connected.
Shackleford and Massingill carried the HCHS offense in the opening period, combining to hit five of five shots to help the Lady Bears grabbed a 13-9 lead.
Both offenses struggled in the second quarter with only one field goal each until Stittums scored on a drive with 2:02 left in the half. Shackleford scored inside and Stittums found an opening for another two points off the glass as the Lady Bears extended their advantage to 22-16 at the break.
The game marked the end of the high school basketball careers for three Lady Bears — Shackleford, Stittums and Lee.
“I’m very proud of (Shackleford) and our other seniors, Lauren (Lee) and Kaitlyn (Stittums),” Nolan said. “You’re talking about girls who are outstanding players and students. They are kids who are looking at a 3.5 or above. They’ve meant a lot to us.”
Despite losing the three starters, the Lady Bears will again be among the region’s top ranked teams in the region next year with Massingill, Noe and Branson returning, along with the 13th Region’s championship freshman team.
“We have a lot of young kids who have gained a lot of valuable varsity experience this year,” Nolan said.
Jordan Brock 5-14 2-2 14, Jourdan Ledford 2-11 1-2 6, Masie Charles 1-2 3-6 6, Kaitlin Jenkins 0-0 0-0 0, Emma Bianchi 3-7 5-7 11, Torri Mitchell 3-6 1-3 8, Mackenzie King 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 14-40 12-20 45.
HARLAN COUNTY (20-8)
Kaitlyn Stittums 2-4 2-6 6, Lauren Lee 0-4 0-0 0, Brooklyn Massingill 2-6 2-4 7, Bella Noe 1-8 4-4 6, Shannon Shackleford 6-11 8-10 20, Lindsay Branson 1-3 0-2 3, Kate Evans 0-0 0-0 0, Kaylea Gross 0-0 0-0 0, Bridgett Bennett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 12-36 16-26 42.
3-point goals: Harlan 5-18 (Brock 2-7, Charles 1-2, Mitchell 1-3, Ledford 1-6), Harlan County 2-11 (Branson 1-1, Massingill 1-3, Lee 0-3, Noe 0-4). Rebounds: Harlan 25 (Bianchi 8, Ledford 5, Charles 5, Mitchell 5, Brock 1, Jenkins 1), Harlan County 21 (Shackleford 8, Stittums 5, Massingill 3, Noe 3, Lee 1, Branson 1). Turnovers: Harlan 11, Harlan County 10. Fouled out: Harlan County (Lee, Shackleford, Stittums).