By Chris Parsons
The South Laurel Cardinals met Harlan County (23-7) at home earlier this season, suffering a 44-32 loss to the Black Bears.
At the time, the Cardinals (13-16) were without starting point guard Blake Sanders and had lost four of the team’s first six games to start the season.
Since then, South Laurel’s play has been spotty, with quality wins coming few and far between for Jeff Davis’ squad. The Cardinals have beaten three of the teams in this year’s 13th Region Tournament, with wins over Corbin, Barbourville and North Laurel, but they’ve also suffered losses at the hands of five of the teams competing (Corbin, Harlan County, North Laurel, Clay County and Knox Central).
No matter what the regular season held for the Cardinals, Davis said all his team is worried about is the present and Tuesday’s game against Harlan County.
“We’ve improved quite a bit since we’ve been able to get all of our guys on the floor and get them playing together,” Davis said. “We feel like we have a pretty good chance in this tournament and that’s the way you have to feel.
“Harlan County has a big advantage with their big guys and they have a lot of experience,” he added. “The other advantage is they are hosting this thing at home and they probably have a real bad taste in their mouth when you think about the past two seasons and an early exits from the region tournament.”
As for Harlan County, the Black Bears have been at or near the top of the 13th Region rankings for much of the season and for good reason.
Mike Jones led his squad to 11 straight wins before falling to Breathitt County in the Pikeville Invitational Tournament over the holiday break. Since then, the Black Bears have only lost six games, three of which came at the hands of 13th Region teams.
Bell County (56-54), Barbourville (56-53) and Corbin (74-70) all managed to knock off the Black Bears, with the latter two coming at the place where the region tournament is being held. If Harlan County hopes to make good on all the hype they garnered this season, a win over South Laurel is an absolute must and Jones was quick to point that out.
“We’ve got to take advantage of the fact of having real good support,” Jones said. “We had that at the district tournament and our kids fed off that and it was big.
“South Laurel is playing about as good as anyone in the region and we’ve just got to take things one game at a time,” he added. “We’re not going to go anywhere if we don’t win the first game.”
Given the fact Jones’ squad has failed to get past the first round of the 13th Region Tournament the past two seasons and the pressure is on them as the host, the Black Bears may be the perfect first-round showdown for South Laurel. Whether Davis can get his team to realize this could be the last game of the season, or career for the seniors, is an important factor.
“We’ve really stressed to the kids down the stretch that they have to play every game like it is your last game,” Davis said. “You never know if you’ll get this opportunity again, so we’ve made sure that they know how important it is to show up and play to the best of your ability, because you just don’t know.
“We’ve prepared for the mental side of things and I think it has helped us to play better of late,” he added. “I really think our guys are loose and I think they are really looking forward to it.”
Statistically, the numbers are in favor of the Black Bears, who are averaging 66.3 points per game on offense, while allowing 52.2 ppg defensively. South Laurel scores 59.3 ppg, while giving up 59.4.
Given the fact the Cardinals may not be able to get into a shootout with the Harlan County, Davis and company will have to limit the chances it gives up offensively, which puts an emphasis on rebounding as well as taking smart shots.
The good news is Davis said he was happy with the way his team has played lately, but he admitted there are few things the Cardinals must do if they expect to have a chance at a win.
“I think defensively we have to be able to stop their inside game and rebound, which means we can’t give them second and third shot attempts,” Davis said. “Offensively, we have got to take great shots and we can’t force things.
“If we can do those things, we’ll give ourselves an opportunity to win,” Davis added. “Hopefully we can continue to play well and communicate on the floor. If we do both of those, I like our chances.”