HARLAN — A second straight 52nd District title wasn’t meant to be for the Middlesboro Yellow Jackets. MHS players combined to hit just 13 of 34 free throws in Thursday’s championship game and Harlan County took advantage to pull away for a 83-57 win.
“There at the end of the third quarter and into the fourth where we missed so many consecutive free throws it just took their confidence away and their ability to keep the score in reach,” Jacket coach Russell Thompson said. “But the kids battled hard and I felt like we had a good game plan.”
Middlesboro survived a early Black Bear surge as Harlan County stormed out to a 14-4 lead over the first 4:00 minutes of play. The Jackets got a pair of free throws from Austin Poindexter and a 3 from Donnie Foister to get within 17-12 by the 1:08 mark of the period. Alex Sergent hit a 3 for Harlan County and they led 20-12 after one. Chad Massengill scored nine first quarter points to lead the Bears into that lead.
A three-point play from Tyler Brewer had the Bear lead back out to 24-12 early in the second quarter, but MHS got two free throws from Zach Riddle and a 3 from Blake Davis. Davis then came up with a steal and hit another jumper and it was 24-19 with 6:20 to go in the half.
Later in the quarter, Foister scored inside and Davis hit another 3 to make it a three-point game. Poindexter knocked down a long two-pointer and the lead was down to 28-27 with 2:00 to go in the half. A three-point play from Michael Wilson again brought the Jackets within one point and Foister came up with a steal, but his layup was negated by a charging call. Two free throws by Cody Bumgardner gave the Bears a 34-31 lead at the half.
“They had to be nervous knowing what happened last year and we were setting there battling right with them. They had some senior guards step up and make plays,” Thompson said of the Bears. “They’ve got a good, experienced team and they were able to pull it together in the second half and say: ‘Hey, we’re going to win,’ and congratulations to them. Both teams can hopefully go on and represent the 52nd District in a good manner in the regional tournament.”
A basket from Riddle early in the third quarter again brought the Jackets within one, but Sergent hit a 3 and Tyler Miller added a basket inside and a steal and layup by Sergent pushed the lead out to 41-33.
A 3 from Poindexter got Middlesboro as close as 44-38 with 5:09 remaining in the quarter, but the Jackets missed five of six free throws over the next two-plus minutes and the Bears started to pull away.
“We defended well early and then Sergent was able to hit some 3s at the time when we were missing free throws,” Thompson said. “Then Brewer was able to get into the paint in transition when were missing some easier shots and create for his teammates and they finished well.”
Sergent scored eight points in the third quarter and Aaron Caldwell added six as the Harlan lead grew to 59-47 going into the fourth.
The Jackets free throw woes continued into the final quarter and Harlan County got baskets from Caldwell and Massengill inside and then a jumper from Sergent pushed the lead to 67-47 with 5:30 to play and the Bears went on to win by 26.
“I’m proud our team and the effort they put up here in the district tournament this year. We just fell short about halfway through the third quarter — we lost our momentum and we weren’t able to pull it out,” said Thompson.
Harlan County (23-7) and Middlesboro (15-13) will both advance to next week’s 13th Region Tournament at Harlan County. Middlesboro will face either 51st District champ Knox Central, 40th District champ Corbin or the winner of tonight’s 49th District championship game between Clay County and North Laurel. Harlan County will play either Barbourville, South Laurel or the 49th District runner up. The tournament draw will take place on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at HCHS.
“We’ve got another game to play and you can’t win games when you miss over 20 free throws and that’s in any tournament that you play in at any level,” Thompson said. “I’ve challenged them to work more consistently on a daily basis so they can get tougher mentally. I feel like it just got in their heads when they started missing. It started as three or four and then it just snowballed. If we clean that up, our defense and rebounding is strong enough to compete in this region and I strongly believe that.”
Massengill was named the tournament’s most valuable player and was joined on the all-tournament team by Harlan County teammates Brewer, Caldwell, Sergent and Miller. Middlesboro was represented by Wilson, Riddle, Davis and Poindexter. Bell County’s Tyler Potter and Jake Patterson also made the team along with Harlan’s Isaiah Johnson and Drew Parks.
Harlan County placed first in the cheerleading competition while Bell County was second.
— — —
Middlesboro….12…19…16…10 — 57
Harlan Co…….20…14…25…24 — 83
Middlesboro (57): Donnie Foister 16, Michael Wilson 14, Blake Davis 9, Austin Poindexter 8, Zach Riddle 6, Boone Bowling 3, Major Edwards 1, Derek Smith 0, Seth Barton 0, Brandon Hale 0, Matthew Mike 0, Abhishek Singh 0.
HARLAN COUNTY (83): Chad Massengill 17, Aaron Caldwell 17, Alex Sergent 16, Tyler Miller 13, Tyler Brewer 9, Cody Bumgardner 6, James Bond 3, Fred Massey 2, Zack Caldwell 0, Zack Wilson 0, Trey Sanders 0.