CORBIN — After five regional championship disappointments, including the last two years, the Harlan County Lady Bears were taking no chances Saturday against North Laurel.
Harlan County (28-2) dominated from start to finish and owned every significant statistical category in rolling to a 78-51 victory, earning its first trip to the Sweet Sixteen after five second-place finishes. The Lady Bears will play 10th Region champ George Rogers Clark on Wednesday at 8 p.m. at Northern Kentucky University.
“We’ve really grown up. We’re a family this year and we really wanted it,” said all-state guard Blair Green, who earned tournament most valuable player honors with 93 points in three games, including 32 on Saturday. “I wanted to end my career at the state tournament and go off on a good note.”
“This is so sweet. I didn’t have to do a lot with these kids because they were so focused. You could tell this is something they were not going to let slip through their fingers,” Harlan County coach Debbie Green said. “The senior leadership was great. They were not letting anybody take it from them.”
For North Laurel coach Eddie Mahan, the major difference was Harlan County’s big-game experience gained through losses to Harlan in the past two regional championship games.
“You had one team that had been here and knew how to deal with the nerves and knew what it took to win compared to a team here for the first time in many years,” he said. “We were on fire early, but as soon as it got physical and a little chippy we got a little soft and kind of faded away. That’s a credit to Harlan County. They know championship games are won with physicality. They know you have to box out and run the floor hard. I hope we got some good experience from this and can come back next year.
Junior guard K.K. Johnson added 14 points for the Lady Bears and senior forward Lainey Cox continued her second half surge with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Harlan County owned a 36-24 advantage on the boards and also showed tremendous teamwork with 24 assists, compared to eight for North Laurel. The Lady Bears’ length on defense caused big problems for North with eight blocked shots, led by Shelby McDaniel with five.
“Defense is what we focus on most and if we get our defense and intensity up we’re unstoppable,” said Blair Green.
“We really worked on our defense hard and we know what they did. We went over it this morning,” said the HCHS coach. “We knew we had a size and length advantage and the officials let everyone play. They didn’t waver in that style, and I think our kids adjusted well to that. I am so happy for Harlan County High School and for Harlan County to bring this championship home to them.
Senior guards Madison Sheppard and Hannah Lawson led the Lady Jaguars with 16 and 11 points, respectively.
Sheppard hit all three of her shots in the first quarter and North connected on four straight to start the game in building a quick 8-4 lead before the HCHS defense turned the momentum, forcing North into eight turnovers. Cox and Green each scored off drives and Johnson hit a 3-pointer in an 8-0 run to close the period that gave the Lady Bears a 16-10 lead.
Green scored the first six points of the second quarter, then added a 3-pointer after two Emily Sizemore free throws broke the drought for North. The Lady Jaguars missed their first 11 shots from the field in the quarter as the game slowly slipped away.
Johnson’s 3-pointer pushed the lead to 29-12 with just under three minutes left in the half. Green and Johnson hit two free throws each and Johnson scored off a Shelby McDaniel block for a 20-point lead before Gracie Jervis closed the half with a basket to make the score 35-17.
Sheppard, the daughter of former UK player Jeff Sheppard, did her best to keep North in the game in the third quarter with three baskets, but it was not enough to match an HCHS offense that was running the floor with a deadly mix of athleticism and unselfishness. Phebe McHargue, Green and Cox each had three baskets as Harlan County hit 10 of 16 shots in the period and extended its lead to 60-30.
Harlan County was unable to start a running clock as had been the case many times in a 28-win season, but the Lady Bears stayed comfortably ahead and took their biggest lead at 31 points on a Reanna Middleton jumper with two minutes left before North closed with a 6-2 run.
Harlan County 78, North Laurel 51
NORTH LAUREL (27-8)
Gracie Jervis 3-4 7, Madison Sheppard 7-9 2-2 16, Courtney Carroll 2-6 0-0 4, Isabel Gray 1-10 2-2 5, Hannah Lawson 3-9 4-5 11, Taylor Combs 0-1 0-0 0, Emily Sizemore 0-3 2-5 2, Hailee Valentine 1-2 4-6 6, Kaleigh Collett 0-1 0-0 0, Jasey Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Alainey Robinson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-46 17-24 51.
HARLAN COUNTY (28-2)
Phebe McHargue 3-8 0-0 7, K.K. Johnson 4-7 4-4 14, Blair Green 12-19 7-9 32, Lainey Cox 5-6 2-4 12, Breann Turner 0-1 0-0 0, Morgan Napier 1-3 1-2 3, Shelby McDaniel 2-9 0-0 4, Reanna Middleton 1-2 0-0 2, Hannah Wood 0-1 0-0 0, Morgan Blakley 1-2 0-0 2, Macie Napier 0-1 0-0 0, Dixie Ewing 1-1 0-0 2, Kassy Owens 0-0 0-0 0, Jacey Lewis 0-1 0-0 0, Kelly Beth Hoskins 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 30-62 14-19 78.
North Laurel 10 7 13 21 — 51
Harlan County 16 19 25 18 — 78
3-point goals: North Laurel 2-12 (Lawson 1-2, Gray 1-6, Jervis 0-1, Sheppard 0-1, Carroll 0-1, Sizemore 0-1), Harlan County 4-10 (Johnson 2-4, Green 1-1, McHargue 1-1, Middleton 0-1, Macie Napier 0-1, McDaniel 0-2). Rebounds: North Laurel 24 (Gray 7, Lawson 5, Jervis 3, Sheppard 3, Sizemore 2, team 2, Carroll 1, Collett 1), Harlan County 36 (Cox 10, Morgan Napier 8, McDaniel 5, Johnson 3, team 3, Green 2, Turner 2, McHargue 1, Middleton 1, Ewing 1). Assists: North Laurel 8 (Sheppard 3, Jervis 1, Gray 1, Carroll 1, Sizemore 1, Valentine 1), Harlan County 24 (Green 6, McDaniel 5, Morgan Napier 4, McHargue 3, Turner 3, Johnson 2, Owens 1). Turnovers: North Laurel 17, Harlan County 15. Fouled out: North Laurel (Lawson).