HARLAN — A high-powered offense has been the Lady Cats’ calling card for most of the season, but on Wednesday Bell County showed that their defense can hold an opponent in check as well. Bell held Harlan to just three field goals over the first three quarters and forced a total of 22 Lady Dragon turnovers on their way to a 46-26 win in the first round of the 52nd District Tournament.
“I thought our defensive effort was as good as you can get. In practice we had talked about how important it was to have that effort on defense especially on their guards. Brock, Ledford and Cox are nice players and we had to do a good job of trying to limit them,” Bell coach David Teague said. “Morgan Garnett, Jess Sanders, Katrina Johnson and on down the line, I thought they did a tremendous job.”
Lady Cat sophomore guard Maci Morris was the only player to reach double-figures in scoring for either team as she finished with 15 points. Bell County also got eight points from freshman Kelli Smith and seven points and 15 rebounds from senior forward Paige Robbins.
Harlan was led by 8th-grade guard Jordan Brock’s six points. Shanae Thomas added five off the bench and Mackenzie King four.
Both teams came out playing tough defense and neither team scored for nearly three minutes. Morris hit a free throw at the 5:16 mark of the first quarter to put Bell up 1-0 and the Lady Cats would never trail. Robbins and Brock traded single free throws midway through the period and Robbins pulled down an offensive rebound and got the ball out to Morris for a jumper and the game’s first basket at the 3:15 mark of the quarter.
“Paige always battles her tail off. I don’t know what she ended up stats-wise, but I know that at halftime she already had 11 rebounds and a lot of those were offensive rebounds,” Teague said. “Paige doesn’t always score or put up offensive numbers, but she does a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up in the stats. We couldn’t make it without her.”
A 3 from Morris 35 seconds later pushed the Bell lead to 7-1. Smith also hit a 3-pointer before the end of the period and the Lady Cats led 10-1 after one.
“Give Harlan a lot of credit, coach Akal does a nice job with those girls and they gave us some problems there early,” Teague said. “I thought we moved the ball well, we just weren’t making shots. Once we started knocking down some shots, we started to relax a little bit.”
Torrie Mitchell gave the Lady Dragons a bit of a spark early in the second quarter, scoring Harlan’s first basket at the 6:53 mark and later hitting a free throw to cut the deficit to 12-4.
Morris converted a steal into a layup and Morgan Garnett hit a 3-pointer with 1:43 left in the half to extend the lead to 17-4. A Sarah Collins basket pushed the lead to 15 before Brock’s jumper at the buzzer made it 19-6 at the half.
Brock scored Harlan’s only two points of the third period as the Bell outscored the Lady Dragons 18-2 to put the game out of reach.
“We talked about doing a little better job defending their ball screens and getting more out of transition,” Teague said. “They came out focused for me in the second half and we were able to push that lead and that was big for us.”
The Lady Cat offense found a rhythm after the half as sophomore point guard Jess Sanders found Robbins inside with a pair of crisp passes that lead to easy baskets. Sanders later dished to Smith for a 3 that made it 26-6 with 5:04 to play in the third. She hit her own trey at the 4:12 mark, Morris hit two free throws and then converted a three-point play. Later a Morris had a steal and layup and Katrina Johnson hit a free throw and Bell carried a 37-8 lead into the fourth quarter.
With the game pretty well decided, both teams went to their benches in the final period. Harlan got five points from Thomas and four from King as they outscored the Lady Cats 18-9 to bring the final margin down to 20 points.
Harlan finishes the season with a record of 13-15.
Bell County (24-5) advances to the 52nd District championship game on Friday against Harlan County. Those teams will also advance to next week’s 13th Region Tournament.
“You’ve got to get that first one and I’m tickled for these girls. Now we’ll set our sights on practice (Thursday) and try to get ready for Harlan County. I look for it to be a dogfight,” Teague said. “It’s one that the kids ought to be excited to play in and we look forward to it.”
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BELL COUNTY (46): Maci Morris 15, Kelli Smith 8, Paige Robbins 7, Jess Sanders 3, Morgan Garnett 3, Katrina Johnson 6, Sarah Collins 2, Kaitlyn Taylor 2, Jamie Boatright 0, Allison Howard 0, Alex Brock 0, Courtney Cinnamon 0, Bethany Miracle 0.
HARLAN (26): Jourdan Ledford 2, Masie Charles 0, Emma Bianchi 0, Jordan Brock 6, Kelly Cox 2, Torrie Mitchell 3, Shanae Thomas 5, Kaitlyn Jenkins 2, Katie King 2, Mackenzie King 4, Jessie Cochran 0.