For The Independent
WEST LIBERTY —
Troy Steward was upset.
Fleming County's junior guard had just nine points in the first half of Thursday's Eastern Kentucky Conference championship against Russell. He frustrated the Red Devils in the last 16 minutes — 30 points for the night in the Panthers' 67-60 win at Morgan County High School.
Steward: made 11-of-18 shots from the field, hit all six of his free throws, grabbed six rebounds, served three assists and added two blocks and two steals while committing just two turnovers.
“I wasn't shooting good, my shot was off,” Steward said. “Coaches told me, get to the basket more. That's when my shots started to fall then from the outside.”
Steward, who scored 28 in Monday's semifinal win over Rowan County, shined brightest in a nearly six-minute span in the third quarter: seven points in less than a minute, including four over Russell's Kyle Skaggs (who led the Red Devils with 27 points); a 3-pointer with 1:04 to go; and an assist on Austin Crisp's field goal on a play in which he faked a three. All of that put Fleming County ahead 48-45 with a quarter to play.
A mid-fourth quarter stretch was a good example. Steward had a dunk and an alley-oop layup on a Darion Burns pass, but Saunders converted a Steward steal, stole a pass from Russell's Googie Hayes and dropped in a layup, all of which gave the Panthers a 58-51 lead.
As impressive as Steward's statistics were, Fleming County is not 4-0 without junior forward Brady Saunders. He scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and spent much of the game guarding Skaggs, who needed 21 shots to make his eight field goals.
“He's a great shooter,” Saunders said. “I just tried to stay on my feet, keep my hand in his face and try to give him the most difficult look possible. You do what you can.”
Skaggs bettered his 26 points in Tuesday's win over East Carter. He didn't want to make excuses, but felt playing four games in six days finally caught up with him.
“(Fleming County was) more physical and more active than any team we've played,” Skaggs said. “We knew it was going to be a battle ... We got tired, and when they made a run, we kind of shut down. It was the toughest game we've had by far.”
Russell held a 32-27 halftime lead, and Fleming County coach Mark Starns told his players they were better than they'd shown.
“Our energy level was not very good, for whatever reason,” Starns said. “... We got (Russell) into running with us, and that helped us. It got us going; when we're running, when we're getting deflections and getting steals, everybody's energy level picks up.”
Russell coach Merle Kidwell said Fleming County simply made plays in the second half.
“We turned it over 14 times in the second half; we only had two turnovers at the half, and that was the difference in the game,” Kidwell said.
Skaggs was as ticked as Steward in the first quarter, mostly because he missed five straight shots. Way different story in the second — 18 points, which including 16 straight and three 3-pointers.
Lance Evans (10 points, 10 rebounds), Jacob Porter (13 points, six assists) and Skaggs each scored two points to help put Russell (4-1) up 32-27 at halftime.
Evans' four points gave the Red Devils their last lead at 49-48 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Fleming County outscored Russell, 19-11, the rest of the way.
Former Mason County and University of Tennessee star Chris Lofton — Steward's cousin — took in the game. When asked if Steward could beat him one-on-one, “I wouldn't go that far” was his reply.
“I've got a lot of work to do to get past him,” he said.
RUSSELL 10 22 13 15 — 60
FLEMING CO. 10 17 21 19 — 67
RUSSELL: Evans 10, Porter 13, Skaggs 27, McGuire 8, Estep 2. Three-point goals: Skaggs 3, Porter. FT: 10-12. Team Fouls: 19.
FLEMING COUNTY: Burns 5, Crisp 10, Steward 30, Saunders 17, McKee 5. Three-point goals: Steward 2. FT: 13-20. Team fouls: 13.