By John Henson
For the Times-Tribune
The 13th Region has produced its share of powerhouse girls basketball teams over the years that made deep runs at the state tournament.
Rarely, though, has a field been stronger overall than the group that will gather this week at Harlan County High School.
The 13th Region had seven teams post winning records during the regular season and all seven won at least 19 games. All seven also made it through district competition and will compete this week for the regional title.
“I think there is definitely a lot of balance in this region, and I think we have a lot of good teams in our region,” said James Burchell, who led Clay County to the last four regional titles.
“This region has been tough all year long,” said Harlan County's Anthony Nolan, who has led the Lady Bears to runner-up finishes three of the past four years. “There is no easy game. This is probably one of those years the winner and loser doesn’t matter.
“We’ve seen a lot of different teams around the state, and our region is tough. It's very balanced. Whoever you draw you better be ready or you'll have an early exit."
“It’s wide open, it really is. Everybody going into it has a shot to win,” said Bell County coach David Teague. “You need a little luck, and you have to put three good games together.”
“It’s very balanced,” agreed Barbourville coach Andrea Hillard. “I think some of the small schools have a chance to compete this year, and of course that includes us.”
The toughness of the field will be on display in the opening game when the two top teams in the preseason square off as Clay County (26-5) takes on Whitley County (19-10).
The Lady Tigers hadn’t lost to a 13th Region opponent over the past four years until falling to Whitley County, Harlan County and Corbin this year in close games.
“We had some inexperience at the guard position, but I feel we’re playing a lot better. We’re playing as good now as we have all year, and that’s all you can ask for,” Burchell said.
Clay still features the region's most potent post game, led by seniors Cheyenne Madden (18.0 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game) and Morgan Chesnut (15.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and junior Sara Robinson (7.9), but the Lady Tigers had an adjustment period in the backcourt following the graduation of Alisha Mitchell and Sabrina Smith. Sophomore Ajaycia Cotton (6.3) took over at point guard and has progressed through the course of the year. Freshman wing Talaura Mathis (7.8) is one of the region's best shooters.
Whitley was slowed by a devastating string of injuries and illnesses late in the season as senior point guard Bethany Powers (7.3) went out with a knee injury, junior wing Brandi Smith (19.3) suffered from mono and junior center Kandace Craig (7.2) missed several games with a hand injury. All three are back now, along with sixth man Hallie Jones (4.8), who was also out with a knee injury. Junior guard Maria Johnson (12.6) helped fill the void on offense when the Lady Colonels were short-handed as perhaps the region's top three-point shooter.
Bell County (25-5) will be a favorite in the second game Wednesday against Lynn Camp (23-9). The Lady Cats knocked off Harlan County in a 52nd District championship showdown matching two of the region's top teams.
A backcourt featuring all-stater Maci Morris (20.7), Jessica Sanders (11.4) and Morgan Garnett (9.8) is the Lady Cats' strength. Bell County's post tandem of Paige Robbins (6.1) and Kelli Smith (4.9) played well, especially on defense, in the district tournament.
Lynn Camp is the Cinderella story in this year's tournament with a school-record 23 wins. The Lady Cats have been led by senior guard Kayla Smith and junior forward Heather Wilson.
“I think it’s wide open, and we’re just glad to be here,” said coach Richard Jones. “We have to stay out of trouble and keep our turnovers down. I don’t know if we can come in here and pull off three upsets, but maybe we can pull one off.”
Even though they are having their best season in his 20 years at the helm, Jones says an overtime loss to Pineville in the All ‘A’ Classic regional finals and a loss to Barbourville last week in the district finals were among the most devastating of his career. Lynn Camp has never won an All ‘A’ regional title and won a district title only once.
“It’s been a great year. If I could change anything though I’d like to had different outcomes on the two biggest games,” he said.
Harlan County (25-6) will face Barbourville (21-10) in the first round of the tournament for the second straight year. The Lady Tigers have never defeated Harlan County but enter this year's tournament as 51st District champs. They also set a school record for victories.
The Erslan twins, Kara (18.0) and Kelsey (14.1), point guard K.K. Liford (3.8), Amber Mills (11.4) and Brianna Tate (7.4) lead an all-junior Barbourville starting lineup that has played together since middle school. Barbourville isn't loaded with size or depth but have become a contender by playing hard and making life difficult for opposing offenses.
“Defense is the key for us,” Hillard said. “We’re not very big, and I know Harlan County has some big girls. We also have to shoot the ball well.”
Corbin (24-8) will be a prohibitive favorite against North Laurel (6-25) in the last game of the first round, but you can be sure that Corbin coach Jennifer Parsons has reminded her team what happened to Whitley County in last year's first round when the Lady Colonels were the victims of one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
“There’s not a perfect draw, even with North the first game,” Corbin coach Jennifer Parsons said. “They are young and they play extremely hard. They have nothing to lose. They upset Whitley last year, and coach (Eddie) Mahan does a great job.”
Corbin features a strong backcourt, led by the WIlson twins, MIranda (12.8) and Kayla (11.1), along with Brooklyn Ashurst (4.8). Junior forward Sarah Ashley (6.8) and senior center Holli Disney (5.5) round out the lineup.
North Laurel has been led by senior forwards Kendall Ellington, Brooke Carpenter and Ashley Wyatt.