By Les Dixon / Sports Editor
SOUTH LAUREL — Many expected to see a one-sided affair Saturday when 13th Region favorite Harlan County paid a visit to face-off against the South Laurel Cardinals, but what they got instead was a regional tournament-type game with the Black Bears pulling away late to win, 44-32.
South Laurel coach Jeff Davis entered the game knowing his team must slow down Harlan County’s offensive attack and they did just that for three and a half quarters before the Black Bears got things rolling late in the game.
The Cardinals led 9-6 at the end of the first quarter and only trailed 19-14 at halftime, as both teams struggled to put up many points in a defensive-minded third quarter of play. Both teams scored four points apiece, which set up the Black Bears’ (7-0) late game run to wrap-up the win in the fourth quarter.
“You’re gonna face that during the year, and our kids adjusted,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said of South Laurel’s deliberate style of play. “We didn’t play very well, but South had a good game plan and played a good game.
“We wanted to spread the floor up a bit (in the fourth quarter),” he added. “When we got the lead we told the kids we were gonna spread the floor out, but don’t be conservative. We’ll see one of these Monday night against Bell County. The thing about it is we’ve got to get out on people a little better and we missed a bunch of easy shots that would have prevented them to play that way.”
South Laurel kept things interesting early in the fourth quarter, as Zac Baxter’s jumper with 6:53 cut the Cardinals’ deficit to only two points (23-21).
Harlan County responded seconds later, as Chad Massingill scored on an old-fashioned three-point play, giving his team a 26-21 edge.
It looked as if South Laurel was going to get a three-point play of its own during its next possession after Baxter drove to the basket and scored, but instead he was called for a walk and the Black Bears preceded with four straight points to take a commanding 30-21 edge with 4:50 remaining in the game.
The Cardinals (2-5) got as close as six points with 4:17 left before the black Bears put the game away with a 12-4 run.
“This was a slow-down possession by possession region tournament game,” South Laurel’s Jeff Davis said. “I liked how we played tonight. We kept it close and gave ourselves a chance to win. We have improved so much from the first day. As long as we keep improving I’m going to be pleased.”
The win allowed Harlan County to continue to flex their muscles against 13th Region opponents with wins over defending 13th Region champion North Laurel, Middlesboro and now South Laurel.
“There will be several teams that can beat you on a given night,” Jones said. “They might not can win the region, but they can keep you from winning the region. We’re just trying to run the course and win every game we can. We want to win them all, but if we don’t, we’re trying to win battles right now — we want to win the war in the end.”
Tyler Brewer led the Black Bears with 13 points while knocking down 11-of-14 shot attempts from the free-throw line while South Laurel’s Baxter led all scorers with 21 points.
Harlan County out-rebounded the Cardinals, 32-18, while connecting on 13-of-34 shot attempts for the game. South Laurel finished the game hitting only nine-of-35 shot attempts from the floor.
Harlan County 44, South Laurel 32
Harlan County 6 13 4 21 44
South Laurel 9 5 4 14 32
Harlan County (44) — Brewer 13, Sergent 4, Massingill 6, Miller 7, A. Caldwell 2, Bond 1, Z. Caldwell 2, Bumgardner 7, Wilson 2.
South Laurel (32) — Slavey 4, Miller 5, Baxter 21, Radar 2.