As the game time hit all zeroes, Fleming County clicked start instead of stop.
"We're on the clock for chasing it again," said Panthers first-year coach Mark Starns of another 16th Region title.
Fleming County fell to John Hardin, 79-69, in the KHSAA Boys Sweet Sixteen opening round on Thursday afternoon at Rupp Arena to put punctuation onto a historic season for the Panthers.
They accomplished a school-record 28 wins, a first-ever 61st District championship and earned their first state tournament appearance since 1999, when they represented the 10th Region.
The junior-laden nucleus of the team returns for next season, which is what the Panthers chose to focus on after getting their first taste of the Sweet Sixteen.
"I hope to be here next year and we can learn from this experience," said dynamic junior Troy Steward.
John Hardin sets its sights on Friday's 6:30 p.m. date with Montgomery County.
On Thursday, the Bulldogs cashed in on a bevy of easy second-chance buckets to keep enough clearance against the Panthers. Overall, John Hardin outrebounded Fleming County 45-23, including a 20-6 advantage on the offensive glass.
"We just used our size and athletic ability, and besides that, it was about being tenacious," said Bulldogs coach Mark Wells, who guided John Hardin to its second straight state quarterfinal appearance.
Playmaking point guard Brandon Price, a 5-foot-7 senior, led John Hardin with 20 points, while emerging junior Keon Williams contributed 19 points and 12 rebounds. The duo combined to sink 15 of 17 foul shots to help seal a victory over feisty Fleming County.
Trailing by 17 with less than five minutes left, the Panthers used a 16-6 spurt to slice the Bulldogs' lead to 70-63 with 1:27 to go.
"We didn't want to go out on a bad note," said Fleming County junior Brady Saunders. "The last four minutes, I told the guys, 'Play your heart out.'
"We started getting aggressive, making them turn the ball over," he added.
Austin Crisp, also a junior, scored five straight points and Saunders chipped in six during the Panthers' final surge.
After Bryson McKee put in a layup with 55 seconds to go, Fleming County forced a turnover and had a chance to make it a two-possession game. The Panthers squandered the opportunity by fumbling the inbounds pass from the sideline.
"I certainly would've liked to have that possession and score at that possession," Starns said. "If we keep control there, everything may be a little bit different."
John Hardin (29-3) stayed in control by keeping steady at the free-throw line — the Bulldogs were 11-of-12 in the fourth quarter.
Williams hit five of six free throws in the final 1:03 to help him nab Player of the Game honors.
"I just tried to stay active, crash the boards as hard as I (could), and put the ball back in the basket," said Williams, who Wells said is garnering some Division-I attention.
Ricky Burns joined Williams in posting a double-double for John Hardin. The senior recorded 12 points and 11 boards.
"We've told Ricky's story," Wells said. "He plays as a freshman, but is the last player kept. He gets cut his sophomore season. He comes back junior year, and he's the last player kept. Then, he ends up starting in the Sweet Sixteen."
Senior Daveon Greene amassed 14 points and seven boards for the Bulldogs.
Fleming County's Darion Burns and the Bulldogs' Price provided an entertaining point guard matchup. Burns ended up with 20 points to match Price. The 5-foot-10 junior also tallied five assists and three blocks. He committed just two turnovers.
Saunders had 17 points, and Crisp 11. Steward was held to 13 points, almost six below his average.
Wells elected to stick top defender Patrick Anderson on Steward for the bulk of the contest.
"We knew Burns was a special player, too, but we knew if we could keep Steward from hitting some big threes, that'd be key," Wells said.
Steward was 0 for 3 from long range, and the team as a whole was just 2 of 14.
Active hands helped Fleming County rack up a 10-block outing. Steward led the team with four swats.
"We chart deflections. Our top three guys will get a Mr. Deflection award at our banquet," Starns said. "With the defense we play, we have to reward our guys somehow."
Saunders was already assembling a checklist to achieve for a return trip to Rupp in 2014.
He said the Panthers must get stronger, be able to jump quicker and higher, work on their speed, improve jump-shooting, and give a lot more effort.
"We'll get it all fixed," he said.
Fleming County (28-7) represented the 16th Region for the first time since joining it in 2005.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2664.
Panthers already zeroing in on return to Rupp
As the game time hit all zeroes, Fleming County clicked start instead of stop.
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VIDEO: 16th Region semifinals highlights
Fleming County defeated Lewis County, 66-58, and Ashland beat Greenup County, 81-61, on Monday night at Morehead State University to set up tonight's championship matchup. Tipoff is set for 7.
Ashland cruises past Greenup to 16th Region championship game
Tyler Stewart is known for his unrelenting hustle as one of Ashland’s glue guys.
When the senior guard can pitch in some offense too, as he did Monday in the 16th Region Tournament semifinals, that’s just one more problem for Tomcats opponents.
Stewart scored 20 points, senior Steven Friley posted a double-double with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Ashland outscored Greenup County 21-9 in the third quarter to break open what was a seven-point game at halftime and cruise past the Musketeers, 81-61.
Fleming battles back to 16th Region final
A healthy Wilder Williams this season has given Fleming County a whole new dimension.
Prior to his sophomore year, Williams sustained a football injury that resulted in three ankle surgeries and limited him to bench duty last season while the Panthers made their run to the 16th Region championship.
A physical 6-foot-3 player, Williams is making his presence felt around the basket as Fleming County looks to return to the Sweet Sixteen.
AARON SNYDER: Will the next hero be unmasked?
Who will the bat signal shine for tonight?
Or, should I say, the Cat signal?
In the third installment of a trilogy that might rival the Batman three-pack of “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” Fleming County and Ashland will battle in a matchup that has produced a classic clash in each of the last two 16th Region Tournaments.
If the first two collectively served as a gradual progressions to tonight’s scene, the climax could be off the charts.
Corey Gregg was Ashland’s superhero in 2012, when the senior confidently fired a perfect 3-point shot from the right corner. The triple thrust the Tomcats and Panthers into overtime, from which Ashland emerged 79-73 in a first-round game.
Central wins, Lawrence falls in 15th
The biggest concern for Lawrence County coach Josh Cook was staying out of foul trouble.
His team stayed in it all night, and it cost them a spot in the 15th Region title game.
Shelby Valley senior Tyler Carr led four players in double figures with 19 points as the Wildcats knocked off Lawrence County, 72-60, in the semifinals of the 15th Region Tournament at the East Kentucky Expo Center.
“This one hurts,” said Cook. “We’ll learn from this, and I have no doubt that our kids will get back here and finish the job.”
- Fleming hangs tough to beat Lewis Fleming County locked into another fight against Lewis County, which beat the Panthers earlier this season, before winning 66-58 on Monday in Morehead. Wilder Williams posted a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Panthers, who face Ashland on Tuesday at 7 p.m.
- GALLERY: Ashland gets by Greenup County, will meet Fleming in region final Ashland's Steven Friley scored 21 points Monday to lead the Tomcats to an 81-61 win over Greenup County in the 16th Region semifinal in Morehead.
Kittens clamoring for more at state
Ashland girls basketball coaches went the extra mile, and a whole bunch more, to get a first-hand scouting report on the Kittens’ opponent for the State Tournament.
Head coach Bill Bradley and assistant Phil Wittich drove all the way to Henderson — 5 hours, 20 minutes one way Bradley said on the way home — to take in Sunday’s Second Region championship game.
Henderson County, playing on its home floor, defeated University Heights 67-54. The Lady Colonels went unbeaten in their region this season and are 24-5 overall.
EKC hands out hardware
The Eastern Kentucky Conference handed out its 2014 awards on Monday afternoon at a luncheon at Carter Caves.
Barracudas earn kudos from coach
Ashland Area YMCA swimmers impressed coach Ryan Ferguson from start to finish in the three-day Kentucky Y Competitive Swim League State Meet.
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- VIDEO: 16th Region semifinals highlights