Jordan Brock understands better than anyone that many basketball observers around the state know only one name when the Harlan Lady Dragons are mentioned.
Brock made it clear Saturday after the Lady Dragons had knocked off Harlan County 59-52 for the 13th Region Tournament championship at the Corbin Arena that she could not have pulled off a second straight title without a lot of help.
“I’m glad my team could come out here and show everyone it’s not just the Jordan Brock show. We’re the Lady Dragons,” said the senior guard, an all-stater last year and a Miss Basketball candidate this season.
While Brock finished near her average with 29 points, she struggled with shooting early, missing nine of her first 10 shots. But while Brock was missing, her teammates helped Harlan build an eight-point lead in the second quarter. Harlan hit 10 3-pointers in the game, led by junior guards Taylor Simpson and Noah Canady with three each and Mackenzie King and Brock with two each.
“We’ve spent a lot of time working on shooting the last three or four weeks,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “I told Jordan during the game that the basketball Gods take care of you. Those girls have worked for her the entire season. This group has followed her the entire season, and I told her they would come through for her in the clutch, and they did during this tournament.”
Simpson added 12 points for the 27-8 Lady Dragons, while Canady contributed nine and King scored seven.
Harlan was only a slight favorite over Harlan County coming into the season with the graduation of 2,000-point scorer Brooklyn Massingill and steady center Katie King. When standout senior forward Emma Bianchi went down with a shoulder injury in the second game of the season and never returned, the Dragons fell behind both Harlan County and South Laurel in the regional standings, and then dropped below North Laurel after a loss to the Lady Jaguars at midseason.
The Lady Dragons slowly climbed back into the picture, often winning ugly games, before making an impressive and surprising run to the All “A” Classic state finals. But still, Harlan was behind South Laurel, after a double-digit loss in London, and Harlan County, after three losses during the season, including last week’s 52nd District Tournament championship game
“This is the sweetest,” said Akal, when asked to compared this year’s regional title to last year’s. “Last year was more of a relief. I thought we had the best team last year and had been to the finals two times with the same team. This year was different. We had three girls with no experience. This year exceeded my expectations.
“To come down here and have to play murderers’ row with the No. 5 team in Clay County, then the No. 1 or No. 2 team in South (Laurel) and then the No. 1 team in the mountains (Harlan County) in the championship game is just a testament to how hard these girls have worked all season.”
“This is definitely sweeter,” Brock agreed. “I think a lot of people doubted us and said we weren’t going to win.”
For Harlan County (28-3), the loss was especially tough after 25 straight victories had pushed the Lady Bears into a position as the top team in the region and in eastern Kentucky and among the state’s top 20 for much of the year
“We just didn’t guard. We just didn’t play well,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “This was not the game to be flat. We didn’t hit shots. It didn’t look like we knew what we were doing. We missed shots and we missed free throws. You can’t let your body language get down when you miss shots. You have to keep grinding it out. We could never get over the hump.”
Junior center Kaylea Gross scored 29 points and junior guard Blair Green added 15 to lead the Lady Bears.
Harlan did an especially good job on Green as junior forward Brandi Haywood opened the game against her in the Lady Dragons’ man-to-man defense. The Lady Bears hit only four of 14 shots in the opening period as Harlan took a 10-8 lead on two Canady 3-pointers. The Lady Dragons’ lead reached eight midway through the second quarter.
“We had played a 2-3 zone the last three times we played them, but I thought we did a pretty good job in our man the last time we played them at home. We just dug ourselves too big of a hole,” Akal said. “I thought Brandi’s length could help us some. At no point did I think she would stop Blair, but I thought she made Blair be a little more aggressive. She did a good job on her.”
Shelby McDaniel hit a 3-pointer to spark a 9-2 HCHS run late in the half that pulled Harlan County within one before Brock picked up a loose ball and beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer that made the score 29-25 at halftime.
Gross had seven points in a 9-0 run that gave Harlan County its first, and only, lead at 37-36 with 39 seconds left in the third quarter. Brock answered with a three-point play. Breann Turner hit a free throw to cut the deficit to one entering the final period.
Harlan went to a 2-3 zone in the fourth quarter, packing it in tighter and tighter around Gross as the Lady Bears struggled to hit from the outside. HCHS missed 10 of its first 11 shots in the period pulled out to an 11-point lead.
“One reason was, Kenzie had picked up her for fourth foul and I wanted to hide her. I also thought it would force them to move the ball around and run some clock,” Akal said of the move to a zone. “They hadn’t taken a lot of 3s in the first three quarters, and it’s hard to make those 3s in the fourth quarter if you haven’t taken that many.”
Harlan will play 10th Region champ George Rogers Clark on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the first round of the state tournament.
For the Lady Bears, they must look ahead to next year with all five starters returning and a roster that includes only season. The Lady Bears will likely enter the season where they spent most of the this season as the favorite.
“They have nothing to hang their heads about,” Green said of her team. “I’m very proud of them. They’ve had a great season and have a chance to be right back here next year if they keep working. We have a lot of things we can work on.”
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134