Troy Steward and Darion Burns didn’t hear each other say so, but they agreed on one thing.
Steward and Burns gave defending 16th Region champion Fleming County its second straight 61st District title on Friday. Their 26 and 21 points, respectively, led the Panthers to a 79-68 win over visiting Rowan County.
So, on what did Steward and Burns concur? The latest district trophy was the nicest.
“Yeah, a little bit,” said Steward, the tournament’s most valuable player. “Senior year. Ain’t nothing better than to finish on our home court.”
Fleming County coach Mark Starns loved how his team “stayed in character” and did what they were supposed to do, especially when Rowan County tied the game at 52-all with a quarter to go. Ironically, something that frequently flustered the Panthers — free throw futility — saved them Friday because they hit 14 of 16 in the fourth quarter and 27 of 33 (81.8 percent) for the game.
“We’ve been working on that a lot,” Starns said. “ ... I told these guys I’ll take that and run.”
The Panthers deviated from their script in one other way — they abandoned their full-court press for much of the game.
“(Rowan County has) five ball-handlers on the floor,” Starns said. “It’s hard to press when a team has five ball-handlers on the floor that can shoot.”
Fleming County (21-9) is 9-0 in the district this season and 9-3 over its last 12 games. The Panthers won their fourth over Rowan County this season and are 9-0 over the Vikings over the past two years.
Rowan County coach Shawn Thacker thought Fleming County had a personnel advantage — he called Steward and Burns potential NCAA Division I-quality players. “That’s really nice of a coach to say that,” Steward said.
But the hearts of Fleming County fans from Flemingsburg to Muses Mill might have gone into their noses with about 55 seconds to go, when Rowan County’s Devin Helvey flung Burns, who’d missed much of the season recovering from a torn right anterior cruciate knee ligament, onto his right shoulder after Steward hit him with a length-of-court pass-and-layup.
You can exhale now: Burns writhed on the floor and a coach massaged his shoulder, but he said he's fine.
“(Helvey) wasn’t trying to be dirty,” Burns said. “I was fortunate to come up not hurt.”
Despite the loss, Rowan County (21-10) has won seven of eight and 13 of its last 16.
Fleming County has come so far because of its speed and versatility, and Friday’s first two minutes was somewhat a selfie.
Start with Panther junior Wilder Williams (10 points, 10 rebounds), who opened the scoring 24 seconds in with a right-to-left baby hook over the Vikings’ Hayden Pratt. Steward followed that with a breakaway dunk about 30 seconds later after Burns stole the ball from a shooter who had the ball too close to his hips.
Burns later found Brady Saunders (17 points) for a bucket, and Steward made it 9-0 with a 12-footer.
Fleming County’s man-to-man defense, meanwhile, was stickier than a bakery full of cinnamon rolls. Rowan County didn’t score a point until Tyler Thacker’s free throw with 5:41 left, and the Vikings didn't have a field goal until Thacker’s a little more than a minute later. Thacker had 13 points.
Burns completed an 11-1 run with his rebound full-court dribble and split of two Rowan County defenders.
Did Rowan County fold? Nope — a 10-5 run closed the deficit to 16-11 with 2:36 left.
Did the Vikings capitulate after the Panthers ran to a 32-22 lead midway through the second quarter after Burns again split two defenders for one bucket and knocked down a three while Steward hit a 10-footer and two free throws?
Absolutely not — Ryne Callahan’s bucket with 16 ticks left pulled Rowan County to within 41-33 at the break. Justin Graham and Isaac Lee each scored three points over the last four minutes.
The Vikings forevermore didn’t vanish when they reeled off a 19-6 third-period tear. Larry Whelan, Justin Graham and Clay Fannin each knocked down 3s, and six of Brandon Moore's team-high 14 points helped tie the game at 52-all.
“We let them get wide open 3s and points in the paint,” Burns said. “Once we got (a timeout), we came around and pushed the lead back up.”
Steward’s triple and a Saunders bucket put Fleming County ahead, 57-52, less than 90 seconds into the fourth quarter. Callahan then drained a 3-pointer and free throw, but Rowan County didn’t get another field goal until Thacker's with 1:52 left, and Fleming County took a 66-60 lead.
Rowan County had two other problems — Callahan and Whelan were in late foul trouble with four each.
“I've got a great group of kids,” Shawn Thacker said. “They showed a great deal of resolve … Our kids are growing up.”
All-tournament team: Bath County – Blake Maze, Mac Becraft; Menifee County – Trevor Rose, Thomas Chaney; Rowan County – Ryne Callahan, Justin Graham, Tyler Thacker; Fleming County – Darion Burns, Wilder Williams, Brady Saunders. Most valuable player: Troy Steward, Fleming County.