For The Independent
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 email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.