LEXINGTON | Wait 'til next year.

That age-old sports adage rings true for the Fleming County Panthers.

In front of the largest and most vocal crowd inside cavernous Rupp Arena on Thursday afternoon, a late Fleming rally came up short against Fifth Region champion John Hardin but the players spoke after the 79-69 loss to the Bulldogs about making a return trip in 2014.

The Panthers will be favored to repeat as 16th Region champs with four of their five starters coming back.

Point guard Darion Burns, shooting guard-small forward Troy Steward, guard Austin Crisp, forward Brady Saunders and forward Bryson McKee will be back for their senior season wearing the black and gold and most pundits will undoubtedly tap Fleming to win the region and return to the Sweet Sixteen.

The bench should also be improved with Amani Thomas, Wilder Williams and Keion Crumbie returning for their junior years.

Following the loss to a state tournament-tested John Hardin club, next season was already on the minds of coach Mark Starns and the Panthers.

"The clock starts tomorrow for us to get back here," Starns said. "My hat's off to our guys and our community for all they accomplished this season and we wanted this to be our coming out stage. John Hardin definitely had an advantage (from playing in the Sweet 16 last year) and they're a very athletic and very good basketball team. They killed us on the boards (45-23) and that's something that's hurt us all year."

"This was a great experience for us," Burns said of the team's first trip to the state tournament in 14 years. "We tried to play as hard as we could for our fans and supporters and we want to get back here next year."

Steward said that the players enjoyed the atmosphere and expressed the same thought about getting back next season.

Saunders echoed the sentiments.

"We love being in the gym and we love weightlifting," Saunders said. "We love being here all summer with each other playing pickup ball. We're looking to get back here, nothing less than that, and we want to make a run next year."

From the looks and sounds of the Fleming faithful on Thursday, they will be more than willing to make the trek back to Lexington to cheer on their beloved Panthers.

Fleming needs to look no further than their opening round opponent for inspiration.

The Bulldogs made just their second trip to the Sweet Sixteen a year ago and the experience played a part in them getting off to a quick start against the Panthers.

John Hardin scored the first two baskets of the game and it took Fleming two minutes to get on the scoreboard when Burns drove for a basket.

After the Bulldogs' beefy post player, 6-foot-3, 245-pounder Daveon Greene answered with an inside score, Desmond McAdams, the Panthers' lone senior starter, drained a 3 to slice the John Hardin lead to one.

However, the Bulldogs outscored Fleming 14-5 to open up a 10-point lead and increased their advantage to as many as 15 in the second quarter.

Meanwhile, the Panthers made just one of their first nine field goal attempts against a very stingy defense and coming back was far from an easy chore.

"It got away from us there when we had that 10-point deficit in the first half," Starns said. "Maybe we were a little tentative, but we just didn't have the good mojo in the first half. We started out in a zone because after watching them on tape we thought that was the blueprint to slowing them down. But they sliced it up and got a lot of inside baskets and putbacks."

Once Fleming settled down, they showed why they were 28-7 this year by turning up the heat defensively and connecting on 58.6 percent of their shots in the second half, which ended up as a 45-45 tie.

"I told them to stay aggressive offensively and defensively and let's just chip away and try to extend the game," Starns said.

They did just that but it was a case of too little, too late.

After John Hardin took their largest lead of the game (64-47) with 4:40 remaining on a Greene layup, the Panthers used a 16-6 run to get to within seven on a Burns three-point play with 1:27 left, but they would get no closer.

Mark Wells, in his fifth year leading the Bulldogs, complimented Fleming.

"It was a great game and Fleming County played well," Wells said. "They kept playing hard, which is a tribute to Coach Starns."

John Hardin point guard Brandon Price, who tied Burns for game-high scoring honors with 20 points, said playing in the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive year was a factor.

"Last year's experience helped a lot," Price said. "Last year, we were amazed by the atmosphere but this year we were taking care of business."

Undoubtedly, the Panthers would love nothing more than to take care of business on Kentucky high school basketball's biggest stage next year.

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