DRAGONS DERAILED/Trent Noah’s 35 points send Harlan County past Warren Central, 67-59, in KHSAA Sweet 16


LEXINGTON — Warren Central High School’s reign as the KHSAA Sweet 16 state champion in boys basketball came to an end on Thursday afternoon at Rupp Arena.

The Dragons battled Harlan County tooth and nail, but the Black Bears dictated the pace and led for nearly the entire game, eliminating Warren Central, 67-59, in first-round Sweet 16 play before a crowd of 11,061.

Warren Central bucked the odds in even getting here, rallying for a 64-57 overtime victory over archrival Bowling Green High School in the KHSAA 4th Region championship game on March 12 at WKU’s E.A. Diddle Arena.

But a slow start quickly left the Dragons in a catch-up mode, and Harlan County’s Trent Noah and his teammates turned back several challenges over the course of the game. The Black Bears improved to 32-4 on the season and they’ll tangle with Campbell County (27-6) in the final Sweet 16 quarterfinal game on Friday night.

Campbell County slipped past Newport High School, 43-40, in the final first-round game on Thursday night.

That game will tip off at 8:30 p.m., EDT.

The Dragons finished at 17-12, but veteran WCHS coach William Unseld said it was one of the most rewarding seasons of his career, given the obstacles his team faced after their memorable run to a championship 12 months ago.

“I’m tickled to death, with the year we had,” Unseld said.

Noah, Harlan County’s 6-foot-6 senior guard, turned in a splendid performance to send his team to the quarterfinals.

Noah hit 11 of 19 shots, including a 6-for-8 showing from the 3-point line, while finishing with a game-high 35 points and 11 rebounds. Noah has signed with South Carolina and seemed comfortable on the Rupp Arena playing floor. He has a quick first step and can shoot from anywhere on the perimeter, which often left the Dragons flailing in his wake.

Unseld said some of the Dragons’ younger players needed some time to adjust to the atmosphere.

“I could see it in their eyes, in the locker room,” he said. “Lack of communication hurt us today. I think we froze, from time to time, but I can’t take any credit away from Harlan County … We kept leaving Noah open.

“To our credit, we fought back and got back into the game. We just didn’t make the plays we needed down the stretch.”

Kade Unseld, the Dragons’ star swingman and son of the Warren Central coach, almost kept his team in the game by himself in the first three quarters. Kade Unseld hit nine of 22 shots, including a 3-for-11 performance from 3-point range, to lead the Dragons with 23 points, six rebounds and four assists.

Kade Unseld drilled a 3-pointer from the left wing to trim the Warren Central deficit to 44-42 in the final three minutes of the third quarter, and he had a chance to put the Dragons in front on their next possession. But his 3-pointer was off the mark, and Harlan County quickly extended its lead back to double digits before the end of the quarter.

“We knew we’d have problems with Kade Unseld,” Harlan coach Kyle Jones said. “We just tried to make his touches tough. We knew Warren Central was a lot better than their record (would indicate) … The last few years, the mountain schools (from Southeastern Kentucky) have struggled here.

“We basically played six guys all year.”

That was the Black Bears’ formula on Thursday afternoon, too. Harlan County guard Maddox Huff hit 3 of 6 shots from 3-point range and finished the game with 15 points, five rebounds and a game-high four assists. Equally important, the Black Bears went 17 for 19 at the free-throw line, while holding their own on the boards against the longer, more athletic Dragons.

Warren Central senior Drevin Bratton finished the game with 13 points, while teammate Elijah Starks had 12 points and a team-high 11 rebounds before fouling out in the game’s final two minutes.

Kade Unseld helped power Warren Central to the school’s second state championship last season, but he missed the first month of the season after undergoing meniscus surgery on his left leg. William Unseld said he even gave some thought into “shutting him down” and letting Kade Unseld concentrate on preparing for his college career at Western Kentucky, but his son was having none of that.

“Kade said he wanted to get (his teammates) back to Rupp (for the Sweet 16),” William Unseld said.

Harlan County’s Trent Noah, meanwhile, seemed comfortable under the bright lights and made one tough shot after another. Noah has averaged nearly 30 points per game this season, and he’ll get a chance to lead his team to the semifinals when the Black Bears return to the court on Friday night.

“Trent Noah is a tough matchup, at the high school level,” William Unseld said. “Every time we made a run, it seems like we lost him and he hit a big shot.”

Cadin Hammer, Warren Central’s senior point guard, said it was a rewarding season for the Dragons. After losing its first three games to archrival Bowling Green High School, Warren Central erased an eight-point deficit after three quarters on its way to the dramatic 64-57 victory in overtime earlier this month.

“Nobody thought we’d get here,” Hammer said. “Everybody seemed to doubt us … It didn’t end the way we wanted, but it was a great ride to get here.”