Bell earns ticket to regional tournament with victory over Green Dragons

Published 4:14 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

By John Henson

Contributing Sports Writer

With March still three days away, the Bell County Bobcats have already crossed off the two major goals they set going into the 2023-2024 season.

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“We wanted to get 20 wins, and we wanted to get to the regional tournament,” said Bell County coach Brad Sizemore after the Bobcats knocked off Harlan 74-57 on Tuesday in the opening round of the 52nd District Tournament at Harlan County High School.” The guys have done that, and I’m very happy and pleased with how they played.”

Without a senior on their roster, the Bobcats improved to 25-6 and avenged a loss in last year’s district tournament.

“Harlan has had our number since I’ve been over here, and we talked about the loss in last year’s district tournament at Middlesboro (66-58). It was a credit to these guys we were able to get it done tonight,” Sizemore said.

The Bobcats reached a championship game matchup against Harlan County with a balanced attack that has been their trademark much of the year.

Sophomore guard Blake Burnett scored 24 to lead the Bobcats, followed by Jaxon Thomas with 17 points and Ethan Buell and Cayden Huff with 15 each.

Harlan took a 12-11 lead after one quarter and led by five late in the first half before Burnett started a 10-0 run that featured two 3s from Thomas.

“We came out overthinking it a little, but our guys did an unbelievable job responding and playing well throughout the entire game,” Sizemore said. “Harlan is very dangerous and can make a lot of shots. Our guys have done a lot of growing up. We got some big stops in the third quarter and got the lead pushed out.”

“They shot the ball well during that stretch and got some offensive rebounds,” Harlan coach Derrick Akal said. “They played better. I think they were the bette team tonight.”

Senior guard Kyler McLendon scored 21 to lead Harlan in the final game of an outstanding high school career. Trent Cole added 10 points.

The Green Dragons finished 6-21 after back-to-back 20-win seasons and missed the 13th Region Tournament for the first time since 2016.

“We’ve had a good run the last three or four years and lost some good basketball players,” Akal said. “We had a bunch of young guys and tried to mesh that together with some football guys who hadn’t played in a while.”