In a season when the 13th Region is arguably as strong as it’s been since the mid 1990s, the Harlan County Black Bears found a way to win 30 games and still be an underdog, at least in the eyes of the people who handle the rankings that fans around the state spend the season debating.
Harlan County began practice as the preseason favorite in the Cats Pause but soon started falling, even while they continued to win. The Bears went into the 13th Region Tournament as the region’s fifth-ranked team in the Cantrall Ratings despite beating two of the teams (North Laurel and Knox Central) ranked ahead of them. HCHS added a win over defending champ South Laurel on Saturday in the semifinals, then knocked off a team Corbin team that had handed them two of their three losses in the championship game Monday.
The Bears grabbed an early lead behind the shooting of Treyce Spurlock and the defense of Andrew Creech, then held off a Corbin comeback attempt behind the clutch play of Cameron Carmical and Creech for a 67-65 win.
“We’re 31-3 and nobody in this building thought we could win, except us,” Harlan County coach Michael Jones said. “I’m so proud of this bunch I can’t stand it. It’s huge, and what makes it more sweet is that they are the first. I told them that no matter how many championships come afterwards, nobody can this away from them.”
Carmical followed his 31-point performance against South Laurel by hitting seven of 11 shots against Corbin, including five of six from behind the 3-point line, as he scored 23 points. Spurlock and Creech followed with 20 and 14 points, respectively.
“It’s kind of a numb feeling now, but I’m blessed to have the teammates I have to experience it with, and the coaches and the fans,” Carmical said. “It’s been a great four years, and I’m not finished yet. Since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to play in Rupp. I’ve been going to the state tournament for years and it’s always been my dream to play there. To get it my senior year, in this atmosphere, is a great feeling.”
“It means everything to us — every day, every practice, every drill, every off day in the gym, it all comes down to this,” Spurlock said. “It feels surreal. I don’t know what to say right now.”
Harlan County had to play its best game of the season to hold off a Corbin team that beat them by 18 points at Corbin and 12 at HCHS. The Bears shot 63 percent (24 of 38) from the field, 70 percent (seven of 10) on 3-pointers and 80 percent (12 of 15) from the line and still was pushed to the limit.
Junior guard Andrew Taylor led the 27-6 Redhounds with 23 points, sparking a Corbin comeback after being limited to two points in the first half by an inspired defensive effort from Creech.
“We came up with this gameplan about 10:30 last night, and I didn’t talk to the kids until about 1:30 today. I’ve watched every film Corbin has played. Nobody, I guarantee, has studied them like I have the last two days,” Jones said. “I felt it gave us the best chance, to try to contain him. You can’t stop him. He’s too good, but we did a heck of a job the first half, and that’s what got us out to to a lead.”
Spurlock was red hot to start the game, hitting his first five shots, capped by a 3-pointer to put the Bears up 13-10. A basket by Tyrese Simmons an 3-pointer from Carmical to close the period extended the HCHS lead to 18-12.
“Coach gave me the ball, and my teammates trusted in me,” Spurlock said. “It turned out great, but I have to thank them.”
“I wanted to establish Treyce early and get him going,” added Jones. “When he hits shots early, he does everyone better. He plays hard, he defends. He did a great job tonight.”
“I thought Spurlock hit some really tough shots,” Corbin coach Tony Pietrowski said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t defending him. He hit some tough 3s with a guy right up in his face, and he hadn’t really done that to us all year. His ability to score, and our inability to score down on the other end was the difference in the first half. Like I said, we just didn’t put enough points up offensively in the first half. But you know things happen.”
Harlan County extended its advantage to eight on baskets by Spurlock and Simmons, but Corbin’s Conner Hopkins cut the deficit to four with consecutive field goals.
The Bears reeled off eight straight points on two free throws by Spurlock, a trey by Carmical and a three-point play from Creech to go up30-18 with 2:07 to play in the first half. HCHS was held scoreless from there as Corbin cut the deficit to 30-23 at halftime as Chase Sanders hit a 3-pointer and Brody Barton connected on two free throws.
Carmical took over as the offensive leader in the third quarter, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts as the Bears’ lead grew to 41-28 on his third trey with 5:02 left in the third quarter.
“Every time they made a run, he made a big shot,” Jones said.
Corbin, however, was not going away as Taylor finally heated up with a pair of 3-pointers. Chase Sanders, who added 10 points for the Hounds, hit three of four shots to help Corbin cut the deficit to 48-41 going into the fourth quarter.
Corbin’s pressure started to take a toll on the Bears in the second half as HCHS turned the ball over five times, compared to no turnovers for the Hounds.
Five straight points by Creech followed by a basket from Simmons pushed Harlan County’s lead back to 10, at 55-45, with 5:03 to play.
Corbin rallied yet again behind Taylor, who hit all six of his shots in the fourth quarter, including three 3-pointers. He hit a pair of 3s sandwiched around a basket by Carmical, then Cameron Maguet connected on three free throws to make the score 57-54 with 3:14 left.
Carmical and Taylor traded buckets, then David Turner and Cameron Maguet.
With the Bears clinging to a three-point lead in the final minute, Creech stepped to the line twice and hit two shots both times. The junior guard hit all four of his shots from the field and six of seven at the line.
“I told Andrew they weren’t going to guard him and he had to make them pay,” Jones said. “He did a great job penetrating and scoring and made some huge free throws.”
Taylor’s 3-pointer with 12.2 seconds left pulled Corbin back to within two, but Carmical clinched the win as he hit two free throws with 8.7 seconds left.
Corbin was out of timeouts and the Bears allowed Taylor to drive for a layup, then allowed the clock to run out without taking the ball inbounds.
“There in the first half, we weren’t efficient enough offensively,” Pietrowski said. “We got some good looks but didn’t knock them down. They were able to gap us, and if I could go back and redo the first half, I probably would have got some more shots for Andrew. Obviously, him getting in foul trouble hurt us as well. But I thought in the second half, we sped them up and got the ball out of his (Carmical) hands. We turned them over some, and and I think ended up in the game with 16 more shots than them. If you would have told me that coming in that we would have got almost 20 more attempts, I would have told you that we’d probably win going away. But they shot it well in the second half.”
Harlan County will play the 10th Region champion on March 15 at 6:30 p.m. Campbell County is playing Scott in the 10th Region finals on Tuesday night.
Reach John Henson at 606-909-4134