By Les Dixon
HARLAN COUNTY — After an 11-year hiatus, the Clay County Tigers will return to the Sweet Sixteen for the program’s 28th time.
It wasn’t easy, though.
Clay County accomplished the feat on Harlan County’s homecourt and survived senior Tyler Brewer’s 29-point performance, as sophomore Chip McDaniel and senior Stephon Lyttle were clutch late and powered the Tigers to an 84-76 win.
McDaniel captured the tournament’s MVP honor by scoring 24 points along with a tournament-best 78 points during Clay County’s three wins.
“He’s a sophomore surrounded by a bunch of seniors. He’s a heady player, and he’s hard to guard,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said. “He’s our floor general. He’s a heady player and our floor general. He stepped up tonight.”
Lyttle followed with a 23-point effort, including some key baskets down the stretch.
The Tigers (26-6) limped through the midway point of the season with an 11-6 record before reeling off 15 straight wins heading into the KHSAA State tournament matchup with Knott County Central.
“We lost two starters from last year and we had a lot of question marks,” he said. “We took our lumps during the middle of the season and took some losses.
“We gradually got better by sharing the ball,” he added. “We’re a good team right now.”
Harlan County entered the season with high expectations and looked to be in prime position in capturing the program’s first-ever 13th Region championship after squeaking past both South Laurel and North Laurel during first round and semifinal action of the tournament.
“We kept telling our kids that we couldn’t keep playing from behind. We couldn’t just swap baskets, and we were doing that,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said. “They just made plays tonight. It wasn’t because we weren’t trying to defend or trying to go after the ball. They just made more plays than we did.
“I am proud of these kids. I would love to have been able to see them win this thing. We fought so hard to get this tournament up here. But, that doesn’t guarantee anything. You still have to play. You are just playing out there. The fans are not playing for you. Our kids played hard, but we just got outplayed tonight,” he added. “They overcame our runs. We just couldn’t overcome the last one at the end.”
Clay County held a 23-20 edge at the end of the first quarter and 38-36 at halftime before seeing Harlan County regain the lead on two different occasions during the third quarter.
The Tigers led 51-50 before outscoring Harlan County 6-2 during the final two minutes of the period to take a 57-52 lead into the final quarter of play.
The Black Bears got as close as one point (57-56) in the fourth quarter and only trailed 76-74 with 1:06 remaining before McDaniel and Lyttle wrapped the game up at the free-throw line.
Lyttle went two-for-two during the stretch while McDaniel connected on six-of-six attempts.
“This is great,” Marcum said. “It’s been a long time and to get this win for the fans, the program and coach (Bobby) Keith is huge.
“Our kids really worked hard tonight and answered every one of their runs,” he added. “That was key. Any time they hit a big shot, we did, too.”
13th Region Boys Tournament at Harlan County High School
Clay County 84, Harlan County 76
Clay County 23 15 19 27 84
Harlan County 20 16 16 24 76
Clay County (84) — McDaniel 24, Rice 9, Reed 17, Lyttle 23, Bowling 11.
Harlan County (76) — Brewer 29, Sergent 19, Massingill 11, Miller 8, Caldwell 7, Bond 2.