Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

March 3, 2013

16th Region championship: Fleming Ruppture

Panthers break through to state for first time since 1999

Rocky Stanley
The Independent

MOREHEAD — According to the age-old sports expression, it's difficult to beat a good team three times in one season. So how about five?

Fleming County ascended there for its first Boys 16th Region Tournament title Friday night, using a second-half blitz to bury two-time defending champion Rowan County 60-45 in Ellis T. Johnson Arena.

Down 12 points midway through the second quarter, the Panthers turned up the heat defensively and took advantage of an injury to Rowan County floor leader Tyler Thacker to punch their ticket to Rupp Arena.

"They just threw their first punch, and we had to come back in the second half and throw our punch," said Fleming County junior guard Darion Burns, the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "We got a big lead, and just kept it the whole way." 

Fleming County's five-game sweep of the Vikings included a double-overtime affair in the early season Eastern Kentucky Conference Tournament, a two-point squeaker in Flemingsburg and another tight battle in the 61st District final.       

"It was like pulling teeth, playing such a quality team like that five times," Panthers coach Mark Starns said. "We knew each other so well. I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach (Shawn) Thacker. It could have been a 3-peat for them."

Instead it was Fleming County's time. Starns brought out a new wrinkle for the occasion, calling for a three-quarter court 1-2-2 defense that gave Rowan County fits and allowed the Panthers to take control.

"They hadn't seen that," Starns said. "I think we stunned them with it. We got some runouts and Darion had some dunks."

Putting their trademark quickness on display, the Panthers went on a 23-3 tear to blow the game open at 48-32 with 5:19 remaining.

Burns had a dunk at the beginning of the fourth quarter, then got loose for another slam following teammate Troy Steward's blocked shot as the margin ballooned to 18 points at the three-minute mark.

"I'm so thrilled," said Starns, who won the title in his first season at Fleming County. 

"After what happened at Henderson County last year, being dismissed with a 99-45 record, I feel like I'm vindicated," said an emotional Starns, choking back tears. "I didn't get my shot to go to the State Tournament. I just feel vindicated."  

Starns also won a regional championship at Johnson Central in 2006. He has been a part of eight regional finals overall as a head or assistant coach.

Junior-dominated Fleming County wouldn't be stopped this season. The Panthers' 28-6 record includes a 20-1 mark against 16th Region opponents.

"They force you into playing fast, doing things you don't want to do," said Shawn Thacker after his team finished with 20 turnovers. "Hopefully, they get to Rupp Arena and continue playing well."

Rowan County, coming off wins over Morgan County and Russell, tried to take down a third consecutive opponent with at least 22 wins. The Vikings moved out to a 24-12 advantage in the second quarter while Fleming County settled mostly for outside shots against a 2-3 zone and couldn't find the range.

"We were rebounding well, getting some transition baskets and playing good defense," Thacker said.

But Burns gave the Panthers some momentum with a putback of his own missed free throw. Then misfortune struck Rowan County when Tyler Thacker fell to the floor with a left knee injury and had to be assisted off the court. Prior to that, he had given the Vikings a spark with six points, four assists and three rebounds.

"Fleming County is probably the worst team we could be playing for that to happen, with the way they pressure you," Rowan County's coach said. "It was like blood in the water."

The Panthers pulled to within 24-23 at halftime and then launched their huge run.

"We got off to a slow start, but finally exploded," said junior forward Brady Saunders, who scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half and was also a defensive catalyst. "We slowed down against Ashland (semifinals) and let them back in. We didn't want to slow down this time. We wanted to step on their throat."

Burns amassed 21 points, six steals, five assists and four rebounds. Saunders was next with 18 points while also helping to fuel the strong defensive effort.

"They gave us their best shot," Starns said. "When Tyler went down, it probably sucked the air out of their sails. It was a nasty-looking injury."

Thacker watched the second half from the end of the bench and used crutches to return to the court afterwards to pick up his All-Tournament award.

Ryne Callahan came off the bench to lead Rowan County (20-14) with 13 points, followed by Jalen Stone with 10.

Along with Thacker's injury, the Vikings were hampered by foul trouble to big men Josh Barnard and Matt Brown, as well as backup point guard Justin Graham.

"No regrets here," Shawn Thacker said. "I'm proud of my kids, what they accomplished. We want to make it to the semifinals every year and have a chance."

ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at rstanley@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2671.