Pop and pizzazz were on full display as the Fleming County Panthers rose above all in the 16th Region.
Whether it was Tournament MVP Darion Burns blazing by defenders for dunks or one of his talented teammates filling up the nets, highlights were aplenty.
The Panthers’ next step is onto an even playing field, where they’ll join 15 other region champions at Rupp Arena.
Coach Mark Starns, having had a good deal of state tournament experience, said his team is back to square one when it tips off against John Hardin (28-3) on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
“I’ve always liked the way Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) has prepared for the NCAA Tournament,” Starns said. “You want to win every mini-weekend. Let’s win the two games in our four-team tournament. Let’s not worry about the stuff above or below us on the bracket.”
The KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen opening round begins today with four games and continues with four more on Thursday.
John Hardin is the Fifth Region representative for the second straight year. The Bulldogs are making their third trip to Rupp Arena in the school’s 12-year history — they also went in 2006.
Fleming County (28-6) hasn’t been on the state stage since 1999, when the Panthers represented the 10th Region for the second time in back-to-back seasons.
Studying Fleming County is a lot like glancing into a mirror for John Hardin, said Bulldogs coach Mark Wells.
“They remind me a lot of us, honestly,” Wells said. “... with the way they press, and they’re aggressive defensively.”
Defense fueled Fleming County past Rowan County in the region final — the Panthers forced a plethora of Vikings’ mistakes (20 total) to close out the game on an emphatic 43-21 surge to win, 60-45.
The following day, Starns traveled to Munfordville to watch John Hardin beat North Hardin, 64-51. It marked the Bulldogs’ 20th straight victory.
Daveon Greene and Brandon Price, both key pieces to last year’s state quarterfinalist, put together champion-type performances. Greene, the tourney MVP, racked up 20 points and seven rebounds. Price had 17 points and seven assists.
“Greene is athletic, a beast inside,” said Starns, who possesses no true post presence. “Price is the heart and soul of their team.”
John Hardin defeated Johnson Central in the Sweet Sixteen opening round last March after a sluggish start.
“Last year we got off to a slow start and were overwhelmed by the atmosphere,” Wells recalled. “Hopefully, bringing the same kids back this year will benefit us.”
Aside from Greene (17.7 points per game, 6.9 rebounds) and Price (17.8 PPG), Wells has other weapons at his disposal.
Keon Williams is a 6-foot-4 junior who moved in from Tennessee as a sophomore. He is already getting Division-I looks, said Wells.
Patrick Anderson is another solid athlete and a superb defender. Wells said having Anderson is “like having a second point guard.” The coach typically puts Anderson on the opposing team’s best offensive player.
As to who Anderson will guard on Thursday, “it’s up the in the air,” said Wells.
Fleming County poses several threats of its own. Troy Steward is the team’s leading scorer (18.4 PPG) and rebounder (6.5). Burns puts in 17.3 points per contest despite being a subpar shooter at the foul line (51.4%) and beyond the 3-point arc (20.4%).
Austin Crisp, who transferred from Montgomery County prior to the season, was labeled a “crafty player who can get to the rim” by Wells.
“We can’t get lost on Crisp,” said John Hardin’s coach.
Brady Saunders and Crisp each average close to 11 points per game.
The point guard battle between the 5-7 Price and the 5-10 Burns figures to be edge-of-your-seat entertaining.
“It should be,” Starns said. “When you put the players side by side, I like our side on that one. You give the inside presence to Greene. The other three spots could be a wash-out.”
While John Hardin is traveling to Lexington today, Fleming County is electing to stay home a bit longer.
Starns said that decision was based on past experience. He was an assistant coach on three region champion Mason County teams, including the state champions. He also guided Johnson Central to Rupp in 2006.
“I’m not going to take the kids down there and let them watch games all day long (today),” Starns said. “We’ll have a community-wide pep rally (today) and the kids will be able to sleep in their own beds (tonight).”
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.