Harlan County makes history on Sweet 16’s second day

Published 11:45 am Friday, March 22, 2024

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For a Kentucky state basketball tournament in its 106th year, Harlan County’s game Thursday against Warren Central will find a place in the record books as a victory for the Black Bears.

It was, however, so much more than one game or one win.

With their 67-59 victory, the Black Bears set a school record with their 32nd victory against only four losses. It was also the first state tournament win in the 16-year history of HCHS. It was the first ever state tournament win for a team in the Harlan County School District. It was the first win for any Harlan County team since Harlan knocked off Fairdale in the first round of the 1996 tournament. It was the first win for a 13th Region team at the state tournament since Corbin in 2018.

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“The last few years, mountain schools have struggled down here, and I’m glad these guys got a chance to showcase their talents,” said Harlan County coach Kyle Jones, who was a freshman on the 1996 Harlan squad coached by his father, Mike. “This is the first year one of the county schools, even before consolidation, won a game at the state tournament, so it’s a special day. 

“We’re not overconfident, but we feel we can play with a lot of people, especially if we’re making shots. This is something I’ll never forget, and I know these kids won’t. I’ve been coming to this tournament as long as I can remember. They call it the greatest show in hoops, and I believe it. There’s nothing like it. It’s an honor to be out there on the UK bench.”

While the victory was a first in many ways, it also provided ammunition for Jones’ argument that Harlan County senior guard Trent Noah is the state’s best player. Noah scored 35 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, drawing the praise of Warren Central coach William Unseld.

“That’s a really good team and Trent’s a really good player who had a great game,” said Unseld, who led the Dragons to a state championship last year, a runner-up finish in 2022 and six Region 4 titles in seven years. “I thought we froze up a little bit and we didn’t talk at all. You can’t take any credit away from Harlan County. Trent made shots and Maddox (Huff) made shots. You can’t win it every year. We were mentally out of it from the get go.”

Harlan County built a 13-point lead early in the fourth quarter before Warren Central reeled off 10 straight points to pull within three. Noah responded with the biggest shot of the day, hitting a 3-pointer with 64 seconds left to provide the dagger for the Bears.

“My teammates always trust me and put me in the right spots to help the team win. I knew I needed to step up,” Noah said. “Warren Central is a really good team with a really good player in (Kade) Unseld and good players around him.”

“It wasn’t necessarily a called play. We just wanted to get in one of these two guys’ hands,” said Jones, referring to Noah and Huff. “They’ve made plays all year. I know I’m a little biased, but I think he’s the best player in the state. I feel we have one of the best 1-2 combinations in the state and our complimentary players have improved so much. Those guys have come a long way. I don’t really know what to say. I’m just so proud of them.”

After Drevin Bratton’s basket gave Warren an early lead, the Bears quickly found a rhythm with a 14-0 run capped by a Noah 3 and two Huff 3s. Elijah Starks had three baskets in the final 80 seconds of the first quarter as the Dragons cut the deficit to 18-12.

Huff added 15 points for the Bears, hitting three 3-pointers, including two in the opening period as HCHS took a lead it would never relinquish.

“There’s always a little nerves because it’s such a big stage and something you’ve dreamed about for such a long time, but I don’t think any of us were really nervous,” Huff said. “We’ve put in the work. We trust in the work we’ve put in and our coaches, and that gives us confidence.”

Unseld started to heat up in the second quarter after a slow start as Central got within two before consecutive baskets by Jaycee Carter and Reggie Cottrell pushed the lead back to six. Noah’s 3 gave HC a seven-point lead, and the Bears were holding for one shot when a turnover led to an Unseld 3 that made the score 32-28 at halftime.

Unseld, an all-stater and leader on last year’s state championship squad, scored 23 points to lead Warren Central even though he missed quite a bit of time this season with an injury. Drevin Bratton and Elijah Sparks added 13 and 12 points, respectively, for the 17-12 Dragons.

“We knew we’d have trouble with Unseld, and we wanted to make all his touches tough,” Jones said. “I felt the guys guarding him did an excellent job. We’ve basically played six all year, and they’ve all contributed.”

Harlan County will advance to a quarterfinal matchup against the Campbell County-Newport winner on Friday at 6 p.m. Noah hopes the Bears can build on the momentum from the opening-round victory.

“We had huge fan support and the entire community has been behind us all year. I know they are going home happy tonight and will be here again tomorrow to cheer us on. We really appreciate them,” Noah said. 

“It was a great experience. Everyone dreams of playing at Rupp Arena as a little kid and to do it with the kids you grew up with and go to class with is special. I don’t think any of us will forget this moment.”

Evangel Christian 71, Butler County 60

In a battle of two teams making their first state tournament appearance, Evangel Christian advanced with a victory over Butler County.

Christian Doerr scored 21 points to lead Evangel Christian. Davier White added 18. Isaiah Chipita scored 10.

Lawson Rice led the 5th Region champs with 19 points. Justin Castlen added 16. Ty Price scored 12.

Trinity 50, Pulaski County 43

Senior guard Andrae Vasser scored 19 points as the 7th Region champions moved on to the quarterfinals.

Trinity held Pulaski County to 38 percent (16 of 42) shooting, including 12 points or less in all four quarters.

Will Blankenship, a senior guard, led the 12th Region champs with 14 points.

Campbell County 43, Newport 40

In a matchup of northern Kentucky powers, Campbell County advanced to a quarterfinal game against Harlan County.

Brock Sorgenfrei scored 12 and Garyn Jackson added 11 for Campbell County, the 10th Region champs.

James Turner led Newport, the 9th Region champs, with 14 points. Jabari Covington added 11.