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Black Bears back on top in 52nd District

With four 52nd District Tournament titles in his first four years as coach, Michael Jones and the Harlan County Black Bears may have started to take the championships for granted, at least until losing to Middlesboro in last year’s first round and sitting home for the regional tournament for only the second time in school history.

The Black Bears were in a mood to celebrate on Friday after holding off Harlan 58-54 in the tournament championship game.

“I’m proud of the way the kids responded coming off a first-round loss last year,” Jones said. “Except for the dead period, someone has been in here working every day since last season ended. They have really competed all year.”

Defense may have been the difference in the game as Jackson Huff and Josh Turner took turns guarding Harlan star Jordan Akal in the Bears’ box-and-chaser. Akal scored 18 points, well below his average, and was limited to one 3-pointer.

“Jackson’s and Josh’s defense on Akal was phenomenal,” Jones said. “I told them in practice yesterday we couldn’t let him get 30 or 40. We face guarded and kept a hand in his face. He’s one of the best in the region, but I’m proud of the way kids made it difficult on him.”

“They specialized their defense to face guard him, so they gave us a different look,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “We did have some other guys step up and they all played hard. We just didn’t have some shots fall, especially late in the game.”

Harlan County (22-10) featured a balance offensive attack, led by senior guard Taylor Spurlock, who celebrated his 19th birthday with an 18-point effort. Spurlock hit three straight shots in the fourth quarter to spark an 8-2 run that put the Bears ahead to stay after Harlan tied the game at 44 with 6:22 to play.

“He took over. I guess he was tired of me yelling at him when he ran by,” Jones said. “He was real aggressive on the offensive end, and I’m proud of him for that. He had a hard road in the district tournament the last two years, so I was proud of the way he stepped up tonight and showed why he is one of the best players in the region.”

Eighth-grade point guard Trent Noah had 15 points for the Bears. Junior Tyler Cole, the tournament most valuable player, added 14 points after an 18-point effort on Tuesday against Bell County. Noah, Cole and Jacob Wilson each hit two free throws in the final two minutes after Harlan had pulled within two. Harlan hit only six of 16 shots in the final period.

“We played hard enough to win, but the shots just didn’t fall late in the game,” Akal said.

Cole, Spurlock and Noah had two baskets each in the first quarter as Harlan County built a 16-10 by closing the period with an 8-0 run on a 3-pointer by Cole, a basket by Spurlock and three-point play from Noah. Jon Eldridge and Akal had two baskets each in the period for the Dragons.

Harlan needed a little over three minutes to wipe out the deficit with a 10-0 run to open the second quarter. Kaleb McLendon hit two 3-pointers in the run as the Dragons went up by four. Cole and Spurlock scored for the Bears as HCHS took a 23-22 lead into the break on a Spurlock jumper.

Senior center Jon Eldridge added 12 points and 11 rebounds for the 13-16 Dragons. Kaleb McLendon contributed 14 points.

It was the fourth straight district runner-up finish for the Dragons under Akal, who hadn’t made it to the regional since 2005 before the current run began. Harlan loses only two seniors this season and starts four sophomores. Akal likes the progress his young team made this season, which included the program’s first All “A” Classic regional title in 18 years.

“One of the things we wanted to be was relevant in the region, not just whether or not we could beat HC (the Bears have won all 29 meetings since HCHS opened in 2008),” Akal said. “We haven’t beat them, but we are relevant. I think we proved that with three really good basketball games this year against them. That’s a step up from where we were. A lot of our guys gained some valuable experience this year, but they still have to learn to win. I’m still myself learning how to coach this basketball team. I’m optimistic about where we are going.”

Both teams advance to the 13th Region Tournament, which opens Wednesday at The Arena in Corbin.

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The fifth 52nd District Tournament title moved Jones into a tie for third all-time with Harlan legend Joe Gilley and HCHS assistant principal Anthony Nolan. Cumberland’s Ralph Roberts, Akal’s coach in high school, is second with seven district titles. Mike Jones, Jones’ dad and former coach, is first with eight 52nd District championships.

Coaching leaders in 52nd District titles:

Mike Jones 8 (Cawood, Harlan, HCHS) (86, 94, 95, 96, 97, 99, 10, 13)

Ralph Roberts 7 (Cumberland) (70, 71, 72, 73, 84, 85, 89)

Joe Gilley 5 (Harlan) 5 (44, 45, 51, 54, 59)

Michael Jones 5 (HCHS) (15, 16, 17, 18, 20)

Anthony Nolan 5 (Cawood) (98, 01, 02, 04, 05)

Lewis Morris 4 (Bell, Middlesboro) (08, 11, 14, 19)

George Francis 4 (Harlan) (65, 67, 68, 69)

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Harlan County won the cheerleading competition with Bell County placing second.

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Harlan County 58, Harlan 54

HARLAN (13-16)

Jordan Akal 8-18 1-2 18, Kaleb McLendon 5-16 0-0 14, Johann Gist 0-2 0-0 0, Jaedyn Gist 1-2 1-2 3, Jon Eldridge 5-9 1-2 12, Kyler McLendon 2-5 0-0 4, Charles David Morton 1-3 0-0 3, Jayden Ward 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 22-55 3-6 54.

HARLAN COUNTY (22-10)

Trent Noah 5-14 3-4 15, Taylor Spurlock 9-17 0-0 18, Jackson Huff 2-3 0-0 5, Tyler Cole 4-10 5-5 14, Jacob Wilson 2-6 2-2 6, Josh Turner 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 22-51 10-11 58.

Harlan 10 12 14 18 — 54

Harlan County 16 7 15 20 — 58

3-point goals: Harlan 7-26 (Kaleb McLendon 4-13, Eldridge 1-3, Morton 1-3, Akal 1-4, Johann Gist 0-2, Kyler McLendon 0-1), Harlan County 4-11 (Noah 2-5, Huff 1-3, Cole 1-2, Wilson 0-1). Rebounds: Harlan 30 (Jaedyn Gist 11, Eldridge 9, Akal 4, Kaleb McLendon 4, Kyler McLendon 2), Harlan County 31 (Cole 9, Wilson 9, Spurlock 7, Noah 4, Huff 2). Turnovers: Harlan 12, Harlan County 12. Fouled out: None.