Jackets fall to Black Bears in district tournament

Published 4:11 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

By John Henson

Contributing Sports Writer

In order to pull off an upset of Harlan County that would go down as one of the biggest in 52nd District Tournament history, Middlesboro coach John Wheat knew his Jackets would need perhaps their four best quarters of the season.

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They got one, hitting nine of 12 shots in the opening period Tuesday to trail by only one, at 24-23. The Jackets were still within three midway through the second quarter before Trent Noah sparked a 15-4 run with 10 of his game-high 30 points. The Black Bears, ranked fourth in the state in the RPI system, dominated the second half on the way to a 91-54 victory in a first-round game at HCHS.

Maddox Huff added 21 points as the Bears improved to 27-4 on the season and 7-0 in district action.

“As well as we prepared for this game, you can’t simulate special players like they have, no matter how hard you try,” Wheat said.

Jaycee Carter hit all five of his shots from the field and finished with 13 points for the Bears. Reggie Cottrell and Caleb Johnson each added 10 points as all five Harlan County starters reached double figures.

“I thought we played well the first half offensively, but we were letting them beat us off the dribble in the first quarter. I think we were a little too amped up. Hats off to Middlesboro though. They played lights out. They were ready to play and they played well,” Harlan County coach Kyle Jones said, “We were taking too many chances, but we settled down in the second half and gave up only 18 points. That’s what we’re capable of doing defensively.”

Junior guard Jerimah Beck hit all six of his shots in the first quarter and scored all 16 of his points to get the Jackets off to a good start. Senior guard Cayden Grigsby and senior center Trey King added 15 and 14 points, respectively.

Huff and Carter carried the HC offense early, combining for seven of the Bears’ nine baskets in the opening period. Noah heated up in the second quarter with five baskets. Johnson and Carter hit two shots each as the Bears’ lead grew to 47-33 by halftime.

Harlan County hit 10 of 14 shots in the third quarter, including three straight by Cottrell, as the Bears outscored Middlesboro 25-9. A Noah 3 followed by a Brody Napier basket pushed the Bears’ lead to 82-47 and started a running clock with 6:30 to play. Jones called timeout with 5:21 left and gave his starters the rest of the night off.

Despite their 10-20 final record, the Jackets made quite a bit of progress this season, according to Wheat.

“From the first day I met these guys two years ago, they have given me everything they’ve had,” Wheat said. “They have busted their tails and done everything I asked them to do. We turned the corner. I know the score and the record don’t say that, but if you look at all our games this year we just had bad luck. If the ball bounced a different way, we’d be 20-8 or 20-9. That’s the way the ball bounces some times.”

Harlan County will play Bell County on Friday at 7 p.m. in the district finals.