McLendon’s 43 pace Dragons past Middlesboro

Published 11:13 am Wednesday, December 20, 2023

By John Henson

Contributing Writer

For a team ranked among the state’s elite this time a year ago, the Harlan Green Dragons’ 0-3 start this season was more than a little unsettling.

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Playing in front of their home crowd for the first time proved to be just what the Dragons needed as they took control early and stayed there in posting a 76-63 victory Friday over Middlesboro in the district opener for both squads.

Senior guard Kyler McLendon carried the Harlan offense, just like he did so many times in last year’s 24-win campaign, as he scored 43 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. McLendon hit five 3-pointers and also beat the Jackets time and time again off the dribble.

“We needed to come out with more energy and intensity, and I thought we did that tonight,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “It didn’t carry over that well to the second half, but it’s hard to maintain that. I’ve said before that Kyler is one of the more talented players in the region and one of the most underrated players in the state, in my opinion. He can score the ball from anywhere on the court.”

“It wasn’t pretty on our end,” Middlesboro coach John Wheat said. “He’s a nice ballplayer, but I’ll take the blame for him getting 43 points. I guess I’ve not done a good job of teaching defense to these guys, so I’ll take the blame. They also probably had 35-40 rebounds on us. We’re going to work, I can guarantee you that. We’re going to work and we’re going to get better. Play time’s over. It’s that simple.”

The Dragons also got a lift from junior forward Jared Moore, who was playing in his first game after joining the team earlier in the week, along with junior guards Nate Montanaro and Darius Akal. Moore hit three straight 3-pointers in the first quarter as part of a 13-point performance.

“He set the tone right off the bat by hitting those 3s,” Wheat said. “We were slow adjusting. He also made some plays right around the bucket, so you have to give him credit.”

“He has confidence in himself and we think he can make it, but he’s only been out a week, so once gets in some work I think he will be even better,” Akal said.

Guards Jerimah Beck and Cayden Grigsby led the 3-2 Jackets with 14 and 13 points, respectively.

Harlan hit only six of 19 shots in the first quarter, but Moore’s three 3-pointers helped Harlan grab a 19-10 lead. McLendon also had three baskets, including one trey.

Junior center Hunter Clem hit three of four shots in the second quarter as the Dragons built their lead to 42-26 by halftime. McLendon added two baskets.

The Dragons didn’t have a turnover in the first half and took 39 shots, compared to 24 for the Jackets.

McLendon took over in the third quarter, hitting five of 10 shots, as the lead grew to 61-47. The rest of the Dragons combined to hit only one of 10 shots, but Middlesboro struggled to find consistency and couldn’t make a run. The Jackets also had a hard time on the line, missing 14 of 32 attempts.

Two straight baskets by McLendon pushed the lead to 67-49 with six minutes left before Middlesboro reeled off eight straight points. The Jackets got as close as eight with just under two minutes left but continued to struggle at the line.

Whitley County tops Jackets

Down by nine at halftime and six after three quarters, Whitley County overcame a sluggish first half to rally for a 62-55 win Tuesday over visiting Middlesbro.

Freshman guard Evan Ellis poured in 31 points, including 24 in the second half, to lead the 4-1 Colonels. Bryson Mahan and Jackson Petrey each scored nine points.

Junior guard Jerimah Beck scored 22 to lead the Jackets, who suffered their first loss in four games. Senior forwards Trey King and Bryce Bowling added 11 and 10 points, respectively.

Middlesboro coasts by Walker

Middlesboro (4-2) bounced back from a loss Friday at Harlan by rolling past Thomas Walker, Va., 76-42 on Saturday afternoon in the Railsplitter Classic at Lincoln Memorial University.

Senior guard Cayden Grigsby scored 21 points and senior forward Trey King added 18 points and six rebounds. Jerimah Beck tossed in nine points, followed by Joseph Killion with eight, Brayden Barnard with seven, Aiden Larew and Bryce Bowling with four each, Jack Smith with three and Peyton Turner with two. Bowling and Beck led the Jackets in rebounds with seven each.