“Not only to win the tournament, but to go 4-0 and beat some good teams in Bell and Whitley County is going to help these kids grow with confidence,” Lady Jacket coach Elgie Green said. “Especially to get a win on Bell's home floor is a big boost for our team.”
Sophie Robinson hit a three-pointer and then made two free throws after being fouled chasing down a rebound on the other end of the court to put Middlesboro up 53-46 with 3:21 left in the game. Robinson, Brooklyn Jimison and Shaleesha Coleman combined to hit 7-of-10 free throws down the stretch as the Lady Jackets pulled away for the win.
The game started out looking like a blowout for Bell County. The Lady Cats came out strong, easily passing their way through Middlesboro's zone press. Katelyn King hit two three pointers, Brooke Smith scored seven points and was controlling the boards along with center Teagan Brock. On defense, Brock was giving the Lady Jackets fits in the middle of the Bell's own trapping defense, registering two steals and deflecting a couple of other passes. And the Lady Cats led 17-3 with two minutes left in the first quarter.
Green inserted eighth-grader Mallory Shoffner and senior Danielle Gilbert into his back court and the tide of the game began to turn.
It was 19-5 at end the first quarter and Green could be heard encouraging the team to play harder during the break.
“Everything we had talked about and worked on coming into this game, we were doing the opposite,” Green said. “Our post players were going out on the wings and leaving Brooke one-on-one, we weren't getting into the passing lanes and we were being too passive on offense.”
In the second quarter Shoffner was able to slash her way through the Lady Cat defense and got the ball inside to center Jimison, who scored on the Lady Jackets first three possessions of the quarter.
Gilbert and Coleman stepped up their defensive pressure and started forcing turnovers.
A three-point play by Shoffner cut the lead to 21-14 with 6:07 still to play in the quarter.
Coleman registered steals on the Lady Cats next two possessions, turning one into a lay-up and converting one of two free throws after the other. Following a Bell miss, Shoffner drove inside and dished the ball to Mary Flanary who scored, cutting the lead to two with 4:31 to play.
After an exchange of possessions, Flanary converted a steal into a layup to tie the game.
“Our kids just picked it up and got the job done,” Green said. “Mallory started driving to the basket and getting the ball inside and Danielle really got us going on defense.”
Smith hit two free throws to put Bell back on top after Green was called for technical foul, but those would be the Lady Cats' last points of the half.
Flanary made a pair of baskets and Shoffner hit a free throw for Middlesboro. In the closing seconds of the half Ashley Williams blocked a shot attempt by Brock. Coleman picked up the loose ball and raced down the court for a layup just before the buzzer and the Lady Jackets led 28-23.
“We got off to a beautiful start, but they turned the heat up on us and we absolutely quit executing from the second quarter on,” Bell County coach Richard Gambrel said. “I'd like to say it was fatigue, but they had played the last three days, too.”
The Lady Cats didn't fade away. A Maggie Miracle basket and two Smith free throws to open the third quarter cut the lead to one. They re-took the lead, 33-32, on a Smith basket with 2:44 to go in the quarter.
Sophie Robinson converted a four-point play with 1:47 left in the third quarter to put Middlesboro back up by five, 38-33.
Smith hit a pair of free throws and Miracle hit three after being fouled on a three-point attempt to cut the lead to 41-40 after three.
King hit a basket to start the fourth quarter, but 42-41 was the Lady Cats' last lead.
Smith was never able to find a comfort zone after the first quarter. Jimison, Flanary and Williams took turns double-teaming and fouling her whenever she got the ball down low. Smith was able hit 9-of -11 free throws and led all scorers with 17 in the game.
“We know Brooke's a good post player and she's hard to guard one-on-one,” Green said. “We tried to keep weakside help on her - you're not going to keep her from scoring, but we wanted to make her work for every point that she got.”
That may have taken a toll, as Smith was held scoreless in the fourth quarter.
Jimison and Flanary stayed active on the boards and were able to get to the basket when they needed to in leading a balanced scoring attack with 15 and 13 points, respectively.
“Our post players were a key to the win tonight,” Green said. “Mary and Brooklyn really stepped up and did a good job of getting to the basket.”
Miracle kept the Lady Cats within striking distance, hitting 6-of-7 free throws in the fourth quarter and 13-of-14 in the game. She finished with 15 points.
“I don't know that I can remember anything like that happening before in my coaching career,” Gambrel said of losing after leading by 14 in the first quarter. “We may have got complacent, we may have hit a wall, it may have been poor coaching, I don't know.
“But I take my hat off to Middlesboro, they played a good game. I think they just wanted it more than we did.”
Middlesboro improves to 9-5 with the win, Bell falls to 10-4. The teams will meet again next Friday at Bell High.
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In Friday's other First Priority Holiday Classic games, Williamsburg beat Pineville 62-58 in the seventh place game, Cawood took fifth place with a 42-37 win over Hancock County, Tenn., and Whitley County beat Knox Central 60-47 to take third place.
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Middlesboro 5 23 13 20 - 61
Bell County 19 4 17 12 - 52
MIDDLESBORO: Brooklyn Jimison 15, Mary Flanary 13, Sophie Robinson 13, Shaleesha Coleman 11, Mallory Shoffner 4, Emily Osborne 3, Ashley Williams 2.
BELL COUNTY: Brooke Smith 17, Maggie Miracle 15, Katelyn King 12, Katie Dixon 4, Kristen Baker 2, Teagan Brock 2.