CORBIN — It may just be that the future is now for the Harlan Lady Dragons.
Touted as a team on the rise through much of the 2014 season with a lineup featuring only one senior and two of the region’s top freshman, the Lady Dragons are ahead of schedule and find themselves only one win away from a 13th Region Tournament championship after rallying for a 47-46 win Saturday afternoon over Clay County in the semifinals.
Brock sparked the comeback with a 20-point effort highlighted by three 3-pointers in the third quarter to help wipe out a 10-point deficit. Bianchi added 13 points and six rebounds.
Clay appeared to have the game well in hand through the second and third quarters by taking advantage of their superior strength and size inside. The Lady Tigers shot 60 percent (12 of 20) from the field in the first half and owned an 11-3 advantage on the boards by going inside to 6-foot center Courtney Woods, 5-10 forward Sara Robinson and 5-9 forward Kelli Roberts. The trio teamed for 39 points and 12 rebounds, led by Robinson with 21 points and eight rebounds in her final high school game.
Harlan took away Clay’s inside game in the second half as the Lady Tigers cooled off to 32 percent (six of 19) shooting. Robinson’s basket with 1:11 left in the third quarter gave Clay a 43-37 lead going into the fourth period. Clay didn’t score again until Jayci Cotton completed a three-point play with 25.9 seconds left to end Harlan’s 10-0 run and cut the deficit to one.
“We talked at halftime about them calling it like a college game,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “We tried to move our feet because Clay County was so physical. Leah Evans came in and did an excellent job in the post battling and being tough. I thought that was a key to the game.”
“That was our plan, to take it inside,” Clay County coach James Burchell said. “I thought they missed three or four over the back calls. To be honest, I thought the refs just quit calling anything in there the last quarter. We got it in there and they were beating and banging. I don’t blame the referees, but I thought Robinson got fouled on every trip.”
Harlan ran the clock down to 8.6 seconds left when Brock drew a foul. She missed both shots, giving Clay an opportunity to win. Cotton, one of the region’s quickest players, drove inside the lane as the time ticked away but turned down a 12-foot shot to pass inside to Robinson. The 5-10 Bianchi deflected the pass and Harlan gained possession as time expired, sending the Lady Dragons to the regional finals for the first time since winning the title in 1999.
“We got too many people in foul trouble. We only have four weapons on offense anyway, so when Woods went out it was five on three,” Burchell said. “Plus, my point guard didn’t play with a lot of poise down the stretch.”
Woods, Robinson and Roberts had two baskets each in the first quarter. Roberts started the quarter with a 3-pointer and ended with a baseline drive as Clay took a 15-14 lead at the end of the period. Bianchi had two baskets and two free throws to lead Harlan.
Harlan pulled even on a Brock 3-pointer with six minutes left, but Clay went back to its strength and slowly built back its lead behind Robinson, who had 10 points in the final five minutes of the half as the Lady Tigers took a 29-24 advantage into the halftime break.
Clay’s lead grew to 10 early in the third quarter as Roberts hit a 3-pointer and Cotton scored off a steal. Burchell took Cotton out of the game at that point and Brock made the Lady Tigers pay, hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 36-32 with 3:53 left in the period.
Woods stopped the run with a basket inside, but Brock nailed another 3-pointer on the next trip, this time with Cotton in the game. Two free throws by Bianchi pulled Harlan within one before Robinson again took over, scoring five straight points to extend the Lady Tigers’ lead to 43-37 going into the fourth quarter.
“We just backed off her and let her shoot,” Burchell said. “It makes no sense to me, a team that has very little of an inside game and you back off and let them shoot 3s. We didn’t play a smart game. We didn’t play the way we are capable of playing. We have to have leadership, and we didn’t get that tonight. We didn’t execute. We didn’t make enough plays to win.”
“Jordan hit a couple of big 3s and gave us life,” Akal said. “We talked at halftime about staying together and staying alive and having an opportunity to win.”
Harlan will play Corbin at 3 on Sunday in the regional finals with the winner advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in Bowling Green. Corbin won both regular-season matchups against the Lady Dragons, 86-69 on Dec. 4 and 88-53 on Feb. 21.
“We’re in the finals and anything can happen,” Akal said. “They beat us by 35 last time, and I know our girls believe they can play better, plus Jordan wasn’t healthy last time. We’ll come in tomorrow and give it our best shot.”
CLAY COUNTY (21-10)
Ajaycia Cotton 3-6 1-1 7, Kashia Jackson 0-1 0-4 0, Kelli Roberts 3-9 0-1 8, Sara Robinson 7-12 7-8 21, Courtney Woods 5-7 0-2 10, Kennedy Hicks 0-0 0-0 0, Shelby Phillips 0-4 0-0 0. Totals: 18-39 8-16 46.
Jordan Brock 8-14 0-2 20, Jourdan Ledford 2-6 0-0 6, Masie Charles 0-4 0-0 0, Kaitlin Jenkins 1-1 0-0 2, Emma Bianchi 2-5 9-10 13, Mackenzie King 0-0 0-2 0, Torri Mitchell 2-4 0-0 6, Katie King 0-1 0-0 0, Leah Evans 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 15-35 9-14 47.
3-point goals: Clay County 2-12 (Roberts 2-7, Cotton 0-1, Phillips 0-4), Harlan 8-15 (Brock 4-7, Ledford 2-2, Mitchell 2-3, Charles 0-3). Rebounds: Clay County 25 (Robinson 8, Roberts 5, Woods 4, Jackson 4, Hicks 3, Cotton 1), Harlan 13 (BIanchi 6, Brock 3, Charles 1, Mitchell 1, Evans 1, M. King 1). Turnovers: Clay County 11, Harlan 11. Assists. Clay County 9 (Cotton 5, Robinson 2, Roberts 1, Jackson 1), Harlan 9 (Brock 3, Mitchell 3, Bianchi 2, Jenkins 1). Fouled out: Clay County (Woods).