The Bobcats flipped a switch in the final period as they forced five Middlesboro turnovers and outscored the Jackets 17-2 to win going away, 65-49.
Freshman point guard Josh Whitaker scored ten of his 16 points in the fourth and senior Trey Goins scored seven of his 18 to lead the Bell surge. Bobcat senior Ryan Whitaker reached a milestone as he surpassed 1,000 career points with a pair of first quarter baskets and finished with 19 in the game.
“(The 1,000th point) coming against your cross-town rival and with everyone here, you know, it was a little more special,” Ryan said after the game.
“We just finally realized we've got to play if we're going to win,” he added. “If you come over to Middlesboro, you're not going to get it handed to you, you've got to work for it. We just settled down and played defense and came out with a big win tonight.”
Josh Whitaker started the Bell onslaught as he came up with a steal and converted a 3-point-play to put the Bobcats up by four just 15 seconds into the fourth quarter. Goins added a free throw and a mid-range jumper to put Bell up 54-47 with 6:04 to play in the game.
Both Whitaker brothers came up with steals down the stretch and Josh hit layups after both. Goins put an exclamation point on the win with his second dunk of the game. It gave Bell a 65-47 lead with just 1:17 to play.
“Trey stepped up and played well tonight. He had struggled a little bit the last couple of games and kids are going to do that.,” Bell coach Eddie Whitaker said. “But he bounced back this game and played really well for us.”
Sophomore Nick Smith finally broke the Jackets' scoring drought with a pair of free throws, but Bell ran out the clock.
“We played with them pretty well for about three quarters, then I think our youth kind of took over in that fourth quarter and we made a lot of mistakes and didn't execute,” said Middlesboro coach Bill Jones. “But that's to Bell's credit. They played defense hard, started hitting the boards hard and we just didn't have an answer for their athleticism.”
Goins' first dunk of the game gave Bell County a 16-6 lead with a little over a minute to play in first quarter. But Middlesboro outscored the Bobcats 15-1 over the next five minutes.
Junior guard Daniel Griffin scored seven points during the run and sophomore guard Antwan Brown added a pair of layups as the Jackets took a 21-17 lead and went on to lead 28-24 at the half.
“We jumped out to that ten point and kind of quit as far as energy in our full court press,” coach Whitaker said. “We didn't locate once they threw out of our traps. That gave them easy shots and they were knocking them down so we just went half-court defense in the second half.”
Both teams went up and down the court in the third period. Smith scored nine of his 11 points in the quarter for Middlesboro and junior forward Will Harrison added six.
Bell hit five 3s in the quarter including back-to-back treys from Goins and Josh Whitaker that gave them a 40-37 lead with 3:36 to go in the period and the Bobcats never trailed again.
“Josh come out and hit a shot or two and that seemed like it might have sparked us,” coach Whitaker said. “Trey hit a couple shots and Ryan and it just kind of got us going because we were certainly struggling offensively in the first half.”
The Jackets kept coming back in the third. Middlesboro senior point guard Tyler Hatmaker caught the ball in the right corner, drove the baseline and drew a pair of defenders as he went airborne. Then he whipped a pretty behind-the-back pass to Harrison for an easy basket that cut Bell's lead to 45-43.
After a defensive stop, Middlesboro had a chance to tie the game or take the lead back with a three. But Ryan Whitaker came up with a steal and dunked the ball to keep Bell out in front.
Griffin led Middlesboro with 14 points, but was unable to score in the second half. Coach Whitaker said that was the product of the Bobcats focusing more attention on guarding him.
“I didn't want Griffin to get any more open looks,” he said. “We were (going for) steals early on and when you don't get them and you don't find him he's going to burn you. We just adjusted and said we're not going to let him have open looks in the half court and that seemed to work for us.”
In spite of the fourth-quarter meltdown, coach Jones was encouraged by his team's play in the first three quarters.
“I was real pleased with our effort. We didn't execute in the fourth quarter and Bell County did. That's why they're - I say number one in the region, everybody else says number two,” he said. “I think they're the most athletic team in the region right now. South Laurel has got those three big guns, but I think Bell athletically goes about seven or eight deep and you've got to have a real good game, not just three quarters, to beat them.”
Friday was Bell's first game without senior center Brent Slusher, who has opted to leave school early to enroll at Auburn and get a head start on his college football career.
Middlesboro (3-8, 1-3) travels to Lee County, Va., on Monday while Bell (9-1, 4-0) next play against Leslie County on Wednesday in the WYMT-TV Mountain Classic at Perry Central.
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Bell County 16 8 24 17 - 65
Middlesboro 12 16 19 2 - 49
BELL COUNTY (65): Ryan Whitaker 19, Trey Goins 18, Josh Whitaker 16, Shawnta Zachery 8, Jordan Turner 2, Robert Warren 2.
MIDDLESBORO (49): Daniel Griffin 14, Nick Smith 11, Will Harrison 7, Josh Treece 5, Tyler Hatmaker 4, Blaine Green 4, Antwan Brown 4.