Two of the changes were on display Thursday as the Jackets took the early lead in the race for the top seed in the 52nd District Tournament with a 69-56 win at Harlan County.
Middlesboro coach Bill Jones says the Jackets wanted improved teamwork on offense, and they got it with more than 20 assists and four players scoring in double figures.
Senior guard Nick Smith led the Jackets with 20 points, hitting six of nine 3-point attempts. Blaine Green and Chad Cowan each scored 16 points. Senior guard Antwan Brown added 11 points and did a nice job of running the Jackets’ offense with 12 assists.
“We watched Harlan County play, and they are a good ballclub,” Jones said. “We thought we had a good chance if we shared the ball. We’ve emphasized teamwork and defense. So far this year we’ve been able to do that.”
The other key for the Jackets heading into their first game against HCHS was stopping Josh Caldwell, and Jones was happy with limiting the Bears’ senior center to nine points.
“In the past, Josh Caldwell has killed us when he was playing at Cawood,” Jones said. “We knew that he was going to be a force, so we basically double teamed him. I put a guy in front of him and a guy behind and tried to force all the rest to beat us.
“It almost backfired because Kyle (Hogue) hit some good shots at the top of the key because we were doubling down on Josh. Then we adjusted and brought the guards down a little lower to cut off the high post, then that seemed to slow them down. They were taking more time on offense than wwere.”
Hogue, a junior guard, led the 2-1 Bears with 17 points. Tyrek Simmons and Blake Polson added 12 and 10 points, respectively.
Harlan County shot well over 60 percent (20 of 32) from the field through the first three quarters but could not overcome 21 turnovers. Coach Mike Jones was also unhappy with his team’s intensity, especially on the defensive end where the Bears gave up too many open shots out of their zone in the first half.
“The biggest thing I was disappointed in the first half was that we had no good emotion or intensity at all,” Jones said. “We were out of position defensively all night, and we had kids who didn’t perform or work hard offensively, especially the first half.
“You can’t beat good teams; we can’t beat anybody on our schedule playing the way we did the first half. We did totally opposite of what we had worked on for this game.”
Smith hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter as Middlesboro grabbed an early lead. The Bears stayed close by hitting seven of nine shots in the period, including three by Hogue, and trailed 21-17 going into the second quarter.
“We wanted to be there and take that away and make (Smith) put the ball on the floor, but we didn’t do that,” Jones said. “Cowan had 16 points and all of them was because he was standing open shooting a layup or 10-footer in the lane. We always tell our kids not to be spectators and guard everybody.”
Two more 3-pointers by Smith pushed the lead to 10 midway through the period. Middlesboro closed the quarter with a 10-2 run sparked by Green to push the advantage to 43-25 at halftime.
“We have to start leaving the locker room and playing well in the first half,” Jones said. “We get in such a hole that we have to play so hard to get out, and tonight we didn’t do that. We did make a little run and all at once the bottom fell out.
“The intensity picked up in the third quarter, then got pretty good in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter. You have to use so much energy when you do that you make some mental mistakes, and we did that. We had chances to get back in the game, but we made a bunch of mental mistakes and gave up layups.”
Smith’s sixth and final 3-pointer gave Middlesboro its biggest lead at 50-26 with 6:25 left in the third quarter before Harlan County began to fight back. Simmons had seven straight points to ignite a 10-2 run that also included a three-point play by Hogue.
Caldwell and Dillon Cain closed the quarter with baskets as the Bears trailed 57-43 heading into the final period.
Harlan County got as close as seven with four minutes left on a 3-pointer by T.J. Green and basket by Polson, but the Bears couldn’t sustain the momentum and missed several chances to get closer as they hit only five of 17 shots in the period and couldn’t capitalize on a 14-4 rebounding advantage.
Harlan County outrebounded Middlesboro 35-14 for the game but missed numerous shots around the basket. The Bears also shot only 12 free throws, hitting six.
“We shot 12 free throws and that’s one of the lowest totals in the years I’ve been a head coach,” Jones said. “One of our philosophies is to be aggressive with the ball, either with a pass or dribble. We talked about that again at halftime, but it didn’t get any better.
“Until these kids react to what we’re saying and what we work on practice, we’re going to struggle. Sooner or later it will come. We’re learning on the job right now. I didn’t expect us to play as bad as we did the first half. If our kids accept that, we’re going to have a long season.”
Middlesboro (4-1, 1-0 district) hosts Cumberland Gap tonight at 7:30 p.m.
Harlan County returns to action tonight in the Coaches vs Cancer Classic at the old Dilce Combs High School near Jeff. The Black Bears take on Buckhorn in the second game at 8:15 p.m.
Sophomore guard Eric Miller scored 18 points as Harlan County rolled to a 48-26 win in the junior varsity game.
Bruce Short and Chase Calton added eight and seven points, respectively, for Harlan County (2-1). Dustin Bray scored six, followed by Josh Shelton with four, Shane Lindsey with three and Paul Turner with two.
Jon Mikel Evans led Middlesboro (1-3) with eight points.