By Les Dixon
HARLAN COUNTY — The Clay County Tigers punched their second straight ticket into the finals of the 13th Region by holding off the upset minded Middlesboro Yellow Jackets Friday, 82-70.
The Tigers had to overcome a dismal night at the free-throw line (16-of-32) to earn the right to play Harlan County today at 7:30 p.m.
“That’s the worst exhibition of free-throw shooting I’ve ever seen from us,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said. “It was just a snowball-type effect. It put us behind the eight ball and you know, the thing about it too is – we are tired. We need to go back and get some rest and go through a walk through. But right now, we’re just really tired.”
One of the main reasons the Tigers were tired was the high-octane offensive attack of Middlesboro. The Yellow Jackets jumped out to a 9-2 lead thanks to the hot shooting of Donnie Foister, who finished the game with a team-best 24 points.
Clay County managed to rally, though, and take a 16-14 edge into the second quarter.
The game remained close throughout the second quarter, as Middlesboro tied the game at 37 apiece right before halftime.
“We could have separated ourselves a bit from them in the first half if we could hit our free throws,” Marcum said. “We just struggled the whole night.”
Both teams came out in the third quarter looking a bit fatigued, but three-pointers by Jarrod Rice and Chip McDaniel allowed Clay County to take a 56-54 edge into the final quarter of play.
Clay County shot eight-of-16 from the floor during the third quarter while Middlesboro hit on only six-of-18 shot attempts.
“That was a struggle for us,” Marcum said. “Even though we shot better, we just couldn’t get on any type of a roll.
“We would take it to the hole and get fouled and then miss our free throw attempts and could never click offensively,” he added.
The Tigers began to pull away during the game’s final eight minutes, as McDaniel turned out to be clutch during the stretch.
He connected on eight-of-eight attempts from the free-throw line during the final five minutes, and scored 10 of his game-high 27 points during the period.
“He is top five in the state in free throw shooting, so we want to get the ball in his hands,” Marcum said. “That was a strategy. We wanted everyone to get out of his way and force them to foul.”
Marcum’s squad opened the final period of play with a 9-0 run to take a 64-55 edge and never looked back before pulling out the 12-point victory.
“Even though we scored 80-some points, it seemed like it was a struggle (tonight),” Marcum said. “We persevered and we are a senior dominated team and they showed their leadership in the end.”
13th Region Boys Tournament at Harlan County High School
Clay County 82, Middlesboro 70
Clay County 16 21 19 26 82
Middlesboro 14 23 17 16 70
Clay County (82) — McDaniel 27, Rice 22, Reed 7, Lyttle 13, Bowling 9, Wolfe 2, Rojas 2.
Middlesboro (70) — Wilson 19, Foister 24, Smith 4, Poindexter 9, Riddle 6, Davis 6, Bowling 2.