LEXINGTON | Fleming County, in trouble early in its Sweet 16 first-round game against John Hardin, took a chisel to the Bulldogs' lead in the second half.
The Panthers trailed by 17 points with 4:30 to play and clawed to within seven points on four occasions in the final 88 seconds.
But that was as close as the 16th Region champions got, as the Bulldogs won their state tournament opener for the second consecutive season with a 79-69 defeat of Fleming County in Rupp Arena on Thursday.
Four Panthers (28-7) closed their seasons with double-figure offensive outputs. Darion Burns pitched in 20 points, Brady Saunders netted 17, Troy Steward chipped in 13 and Austin Crisp tallied 11.
Two Bulldogs (29-3) had double-doubles: Ricky Burns – a senior who coach Mark Wells said was cut as a sophomore – had 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Keon Williams posted 19 and 12.
Brandon Price pitched in 20 points and Daveon Greene had 14 for the Fifth Region champions.
Three culprits plagued Fleming County: a chilly start from the field; trouble in the post slowing Greene, who at a bulky 6-foot-3 possesses both size and athleticism; and a serious deficit on the glass.
John Hardin outrebounded the Panthers 45-23, including a 20-6 margin on the offensive boards.
“They killed us on the boards,” Fleming County coach Mark Starns said. “That's been a bugaboo for us all year.”
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have enjoyed strong rebounding of late.
“We've had a pretty good season as far as rebounding. I thought we've rebounded well the whole tournament, district and region,” Wells said. “Obviously Daveon's a big guy. He draws a lot of attention (and) teams have to make an effort to box him out.”
And the Panthers made just two of their first nine shots from the field, shooting 36 percent in the first quarter.
Fleming County, which was playing in its first state tournament game since 1999, didn't use the newness of the experience as an excuse for its early shooting struggles.
“We've been bad about slow starts the whole season,” Saunders said. “We came out and we missed some shots that we could've made. I know I missed a layup early I shouldn't have. We just hadn't gotten in the groove of things yet, and with that team it's too late. They jump on you quick.
“I feel like we were organized, we just didn't hit shots.”
And Greene scored the first four points of the second half to set Fleming County on its heels early.
“I thought they definitely had an advantage there at that spot,” Starns said. “Looking at Darion and Price going head to head, (their point totals were) even. And the other guys were maybe a washout like I said. But their athleticism in getting putbacks probably was the story of the game.”
Regardless, the Panthers made a late run to make a game of it.
John Hardin led 64-47 after Greene's bucket with 4:37 to go in the game.
Fleming County mounted a 16-6 run over the next three minutes.
“The word we kept on using in timeouts and in huddles was, stay aggressive on the defensive and offensive end,” Starns said. “Let's chip away and see what we can do and try to extend the game as much as we can.”
Crisp scored the first five of those points, wile Saunders added six straight for the Panthers.
Steward made a transition layup and Burns converted a steal into an and-1 with 1:28 to play to make it 70-63, Bulldogs.
Fleming County cut its deficit to seven three more times, and each time John Hardin tallied two points of its own.
Bryson McKee's bucket got the Panthers to within 74-67 with 55.2 seconds to go, and John Hardin committed a turnover on the sideline.
But the Panthers gave it right back when Williams went on the floor for a steal on the inbounds play, and the Bulldogs got a quick timeout before Fleming County could foul or try to tie Williams up.
Williams' charity toss with 15.3 seconds to go set the final margin.
The Panthers cut their deficit from 15 points to 10 at halftime by closing on a 7-2 spurt.
Burns hit a runner in the lane, Steward sank a jumper, and Burns converted his steal into one free throw with 1:07 to go.
Burns scored down low off a Desmond McAdams inbounds pass with 12 seconds left in the second period to get Fleming County's hole to single digits. But Price drove the lane in the closing seconds of the half to give the Bulldogs a 34-24 edge at the half.
John Hardin focused on slowing Steward, who came in averaging 18.4 points per game.
“I thought we did a good job (on Steward),” Wells said. “Patrick Anderson is a kid that we use to step up and guard the best player on the other team, or a guy that we think can hurt us, and he's done that the entire season. He just gives it his best effort. He takes pride in it.
“We thought it would be a key to get (Steward) contained for this game.”
John Hardin advances to take on 10th Region champion Montgomery County, a 71-63 winner against Warren Central in the day's first game, in the state quarterfinals.
John Hardin 18 16 18 27 – 79
Fleming County 10 14 17 28 – 69
JH: Price 20, Williams 19, Greene 14, Burns 12, Anderson 8, Smith 4, Jackson 2, Montgomery 0, Miller 0, Cooper 0, Boulware 0. Total 79.
FC: Burns 20, Saunders 17, Steward 13, Crisp 11, D. McAdams 3, McKee 3, Thomas 2, Crumbie 0, Conway 0, Puente 0, Scott 0. Total 69.
3-pointers: John Hardin 0, Fleming County 2 (D. McAdams, Crisp).
Records: John Hardin 29-3, Fleming County 28-7.