Fleming County’s season of firsts continues.
For the first time since joining the 16th Region in 2006, Fleming County won a region tournament game. The Panthers defeated Lewis County 59-41 on Tuesday at Ellis T. Johnson Arena.
With the first 61st District title and first region tournament win out of the way, Fleming County coach Mark Starns said he hopes more firsts are to come.
“I’m happy for the community,” Starns said. “But the ultimate goal is to chase down the region championship. And now we’re 64 minutes away from Rupp Arena.”
Fleming County never trailed, but struggled to pull away from Lewis County early.
In the first half, Lewis County tried to stop Fleming County from getting into its quick-paced offense by equipping both 1-2-2 and 2-3 zones to slow the game down.
“We didn’t want to play at their pace,” said Lewis County coach Joe Hampton. “I thought the zone helped slow it down somewhat. I still give them credit, they have a lot of weapons.”
The Panthers’ leading scorers, Troy Steward (18.3 points per game) and Darion Burns (17.1 ppg), were held to a combined nine points in the first half.
Fleming County junior Austin Crisp took the role of primary scorer in the first half, putting up 10 points. He finished with a game-high 17.
“Austin is capable of doing that every night,” Starns said.
After Crisp opened the game by going 3 of 3, including two huge 3-pointers, the Fleming County student section showed its appreciation by starting a “Let’s get Crispy!” chant.
“I like that,” Crisp said with a smile. “We were getting good looks, they just weren’t falling. They’ll start to fall. We’ve got great shooters.”
Lewis County tied the game on two occasions in the first half. The Lions even had the game at 25-25 a minute before halftime.
Fleming County was finally able to quicken up the pace with a man-to-man press.
The Panthers’ press resulted in 14 Lewis County turnovers and 17 Fleming County points. This included an 8-1 run to close out the third quarter.
“Instead of chipping away, we tried to get it all back at once,” Hampton said. “We forced the issue a lot and got going up and down at their pace. The result was four straight turnovers and points for Fleming.
“It made a deficit we couldn’t overcome.”
Brett Ruckel, the Lions’ leading scorer, tried his best to pull Lewis County ahead. He had 10 points in the first half.
Fleming County’s pressure caught up with Ruckel, though, as he finished with 13 total points. According to his coach, the junior was trying too hard to carry the load.
“I thought he was trying to do too much,” Hampton said. “He was trying to put the team on his back, somewhat. It totally wore him out. But it’s tough to take him out because he does so much for us.”
The entire Lions team struggled to score in the second half, shooting 26.1 percent from the field.
Colton Ripato finished with 12 points, while Wade Adams had 11 for Lewis County.
Starns said after Lewis County got to the rim at will in the first half, he wanted to see his defense be more active to close out the game.
“We’ve got to show up and play defense,” Starns said. “I thought we didn’t play great defense in the first half. (In the second half) they were taking fast shots, rushed shots we wanted them to take.”
After hearing his coach yell for him to be aggressive on offense, Steward responded with seven points in the third quarter. He finished with 14.
“That’s been my key word going into the tournament,” Starns said. “Be aggressive. We cannot be passive against teams that want to slow us down and play zone on us.”
Burns added nine points for the Panthers, while starters Brady Saunders and Desmond McAdams scored six apiece.
With most of the focus going on Burns and Steward, Hampton said it’s when Crisp, Saunders and McAdams step up that makes them dangerous.
“That’s what makes them good,” Hampton said. “They’ve got multiple weapons, more than we can cover. A man matchup with them is not a good matchup for us or for very few teams in this region.”
Fleming County (26-6) will play Ashland in the semifinals on Thursday at Ellis T. Johnson Arena. Tipoff will be at 6 p.m.
The two teams have not met this season and Ashland is the only team in the region tournament Fleming County has yet to play.
“Coach (Buddy) Biggs has seen us play and we’ve seen them,” Starns said. “It’s going to be two teams going at each other for the first time ... the chips are going to fall where they will on Thursday.”