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Conventional wisdom coming into the 13th Region Tournament draw on Saturday was tournament favorites South Laurel (24-6 overall, 13-2 vs. 13th Region opponents) and Clay County (23-7, 15-3) both wanted to draw away from each other, and that’s what happened.
The Cardinals and the Tigers are in opposite brackets, and the hands on picks to reach the region title game Monday, March 7. With that said, South Laurel coach Jeff Davis said that any team could catch fire and win the region championship.
“I like my team,” he said. “But I also know they’re seven other teams that are very good, too. I like our chances, but we are focused on Bell County right now. We want to take things one game at a time.
"Once you get to this point, you know every team that is here is good,” he added. “Like I said, our focus is on Bell County right now.”
Davis might not grab the favorite role by the horns, but Clay County coach Robert Marcum was quick to point out that he felt like the Cardinals were the favorites. South Laurel is 2-0 against Marcum’s squad this season, which included wins of 18 and 19 points, respectively.
“They’re a lot of good teams in this tournament,” Marcum said. “But I think you’d have to say South Laurel is the team to beat. They have a lot of talent and are playing really good right now. I think we are one of those teams that are right up there, too, along with North Laurel, Harlan County, Corbin and Knox Central, but you’ve got to give the edge to South Laurel.”
Barbourville coach Derrick Collins agreed with Marcum’s assessment.
“It’s been South Laurel since the season began,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, Clay County is right there, and so is Harlan County and North Laurel, but South Laurel is the favorite.”
Corbin coach Tony Pietrowski is only one of two 13th Region teams to beat the Cardinals this season despite —dropping the 50th District title game to South Laurel this past Friday, 77-58.
Many believe his Redhounds can surprise, but they’ll have to figure out how to beat the Black Bears for the second time this season first.
“They’re a lot of good teams in this tournament,” Pietrowski said. “I believe all four games are going to be competitive. I like the way we are playing, obviously we didn't play well against South Laurel, but I believe we can do some things.
“I think you’ve got to go with South Laurel as the favorite, but Clay County, North Laurel and Harlan County are right there, too,” he added. “Knox Central is playing good, too.”
Mike Jones’ Black Bears are the hottest team in the 13th Region. Harlan County (23-4, 12-1) is riding a nine-game win streak and hasn’t lost a game since its 57-55 loss to Corbin on Jan. 11.
“I do like the way we’re playing,” Jones said. “I believe we’ve been under the radar, but now we’ve got to be ready to play. This is going to be a very good tournament with eight good teams in it.”
North Laurel coach Brad Sizemore has high hopes that his team can erase Friday’s 49th District title game loss to Clay County, and bounce back and win the school’s 13th Region title.
“It was a tough loss and a game we thought we should have won,” Sizemore said. “But we’ve got to put that behind us, and get ready for the games ahead. This should be a very good tournament.”
Knox Central is another team that has high hopes of surprising in the region. The Panthers (16-10, 10-4) have been inconsistent at times, but seem to be peaking up steam at the right time.
“We just want to take things one game at a time,” Knox Central coach Tony Patterson said. “I believe we are playing some of our best basketball right now, but we’ve got to keep it going.”
Other than Barbourville, Bell County might face the toughest uphill battle in the tournament with a first round matchup with region favorite South Laurel.
“It’s going to be tough,” Bobcat coach Lewis Morris said. “We’re going up against the best team in the region, and it’s not going to be easy. We’re just going to have to go out there and try our best.”
Knox Central and North Laurel will tip the tournament off Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. The two teams played on Feb. 18 at North Laurel with the Jaguars coming away with an 81-68 win. Peyton Broughton led North Laurel with 28 points int he win while Bryson Asher had 15 and Brian Gray added 14.
South Laurel and Bell County will follow at 8 p.m. The Cardinals pulled out a low-scoring 41-34 win at home on Jan. 12 against the Bobcats, as Caleb Taylor scored 12 points and Jared Grubb added nine.
In Thursday’s first round match-ups, Harlan County and Corbin will play each other for the second time at 6:30 p.m. The Redhounds won the only meeting between the two teams earlier this season. Clay County and Barbourville will face-off against each other in the nightcap at 8 p.m. The two teams didn’t play each other this season.