By Les Dixon
HARLAN COUNTY — If the 13th Region Tournament is anything like the way the regular season has been for 13th Region teams, who knows who will be cutting down the nets Saturday night at Harlan County High School.
The 13th Region Tournament returns to a high school campus for the first time since the 2008-09 season, as host Harlan County (23-7) will enter the season as the favorite after capturing the 52nd District title with a convincing 83-57 win over Middlesboro last week.
But to win the school’s first-ever 13th Region crown, the Black Bears must erase the memories of tournaments past. Harlan County has never won a game during its four appearances in the 13th Region Tournament and has been knocked off the past two seasons by Clay County.
This time around, the Black Bears must find a way to get past 50th District runner-up South Laurel (13-16), who is the only team in the region tournament with a losing record.
The Cardinals won’t be a pushover, though.
“I’ve told people the last few weeks, it’s going to come down to mental toughness with our kids,” Harlan County coach Mike Jones said. “If our kids really want this bad enough — this is what they’ve been shooting for since they were freshmen. It’s time. They don’t have another chance.
“We’ve got to take advantage of the fact of having real good support,” he added. “We had that at the district tournament and our kids fed off that and it was big. South Laurel is playing about as good as anyone in the region and we’ve just got to take things one game at a time. We’re not going to go anywhere if we don’t win the first game.”
South Laurel lost earlier in the season at home to the Black Bears, 44-32, but that was without the services of starting guard Blake Sanders, who was out with a hand injury. Sanders is back now along with teammate Zac Baxter, who is one of the top scorers in the region.
“Harlan County is the favorite to win the region,” South Laurel coach Jeff Davis said. “They are on their homecourt, so we’re just going to show up and play — that’s all you can do.
“I think our kids are up for the challenge,” he added. “They’re hungry and we have nothing to lose in this thing. We’ve got to rebound against them. If we don’t rebound, we don’t stand a chance. But I will say this — I like my team.”
There are other teams in the tournament that will challenge Harlan County for the regional crown. Red-hot 49th District champion Clay County (23-6) enters with an impressive 12-game win streak and could easily capture its first 13th Region championship since 2001, but first things first, the Tigers must get past first round foe Barbourville (19-11).
“The last two years we’ve drawn Harlan County, but this isn’t going to be an easy game either,” Clay County coach Robert Marcum said. “This is a situation to whoever can put together three games in a row is going to win this thing.
“We’re not going to overlook Barbourville at all because they’ve surprised many teams this year,” he added. “They lost a lot from last year, but they’ve got some nice players and a good record.”
Dinky Phipps’ squad has surprised many this season with some impressive wins, including a 56-53 road win over Harlan County on Feb. 3. Barbourville is led by Devon Mills, who is considered one of the region’s top players.
“We’re just going to have to take this one game at a time,” Phipps said. “If we’re not ready to play, we’ll be making a quick trip home.
“Any team can beat the other in the region this year,” he added. “Harlan County has the edge being at home, but they’ve had their ups and downs, too.”
Tony Pietrowski’s Corbin Redhounds (24-6) are another frontrunner for this year’s regional crown. Corbin enters the tournament with the best record while winning its last nine games and 14-of-its last 15 decisions. The Redhounds also own a road win over Harlan County this season and will play Middlesboro in today’s first round opener.
“Middlesboro is an extremely scary team,” Pietrowski said. “They are very athletic in the post, have good guard play and are very well-coached.”
The two teams have met once this season with Corbin coming away with an easy 68-51 win. The Yellow Jackets are powered by Donnie Foister and Austin Poindexter. When they are on, they are on and win they’re off, they’re off, according to coach Russ Thompson.
“Corbin is a solid team and they are always a tough team to play in the regional tournament,” Thompson said. “Historically, if you’re going to win the 13th Region Tournament, you’ve got to beat Corbin. That’s a big task ahead of us, but we’re looking forward to the challenge.
“I thought coming back and beating Bell was big for us,” he added. “We did well against Harlan County for three and a half quarters. When we lose, we never lose pretty. We’re going to come up with a game plan and try to execute that and try our best against Corbin.”
The best first round game might just be the matchup between defending 13th Region champion North Laurel Jaguars and Knox Central. Both teams are capable of putting together a run to win the 13th Region Tournament.
Brad Sizemore’s Jaguars (15-15) have struggled at times this season, but return most of the nucleus that surprised many last year when North Laurel won its first-ever regional crown.
“Knox Central is a really good team and we’re going to have to play well to beat anyone at this point,” Sizemore said. “They have a good team, but I think this is a winnable game for us. I think we have as good as chance as anybody to win this tournament.
“The regular season game we played against them is probably the best we’ve played all year,” he added. “Hopefully, we can put something together like that again. It’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”
The Jaguars picked up a 63-47 win at home during their regular-season finale against the Panthers (17-13), but Knox Central is much-improved since the loss —actually, they're healthier.
Brian Evans’ squad ran through the 51st District Tournament with ease, beating Pineville by 10 points on 62 percent shooting while upending Barbourville in the title game by 15 points on 54 percent shooting.
“One thing with North, they beat us pretty handily, when we played them, so I believe we should have our players’ attention when we talk about them and start making preparations to play them,” Evans said. “They are a very good team and they are the defending region champs.
“I just think that’s a definite plus for them (having starters returning from last year’s region title team),” he added. “They’ve got guys that’s been in that type of pressure before and that’s always a plus. The night we played them, they played like region champions. I think if we play good basketball and continue to play well, who knows.”
It might be a toss-up on who will come out standing Saturday night, but everyone agrees with Jones about one thing — “the first round games are all going to be interesting.”
“It’s going to be something to watch,” Marcum said. “Each game should be a good one for the fans to watch.”