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LEXINGTON— Thursday’s 79-69 victory over the Fleming County Panthers was exactly what the John Hardin Bulldogs needed to get the KHSAA Boys’ Sweet 16 Basketball Tournament rolling.
After struggling in its two games at last year’s state tournament, the Bulldogs had no such problems getting adjusted to the spacious surroundings at Rupp Arena. They scored on their first possession and led wire-to-wire.
“It helped a lot being here last year,” said John Hardin senior point guard Brandon Price, who had 20 points, six assists and four rebounds. “Last year we were amazed by the surroundings. We definitely learned from last year. We don’t want to settle for jumpers, but we wanted to attack and get easy baskets.”
With the victory, the seventh-ranked Bulldogs (29-3) reach the state quarterfinals for the second straight year. They’ll play Montgomery County (32-4) at 6:30 tonight. The Indians pulled away for a 71-63 victory over Warren Central prior to John Hardin’s win.
John Hardin, which won its 21st consecutive game, was relentless, pounding the ball inside and attacking the offensive glass. Its 18 first-quarter points matched last year’s total for the entire first half against Johnson Central in the first round.
The Bulldogs shot 45.6 percent from the field despite going 0-for-5 the 3-point arc. They made 31 field goals, which is just one less than they had in both state tournament games combined last year. They scored 56 points in the paint and had 22 second-chance points compared to Fleming County’s eight.
“That was our goal,” John Hardin coach Mark Wells said. “We emphasized getting the ball inside. We wanted to get off to a good start and not shoot just because we were excited. I know we were 0-of-5 on 3s, but I’m proud of that. That shows me about our shot selection. We didn’t settle for jumpers or 3s. I was impressed by our offensive maturity.”
Another thing Wells had to be pleased with was how his team dominated the boards, which is the one statistic that stands out. The Bulldogs held a mind-boggling 45-23 rebounding advantage. Fleming County only managed six offensive rebounds and its first came with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
“We were boxing out and going after the rebounds,” said John Hardin senior forward Ricky Burns, who scored a career-high 12 points. “I saw my teammates diving for rebounds. Being able to hold any opponent to one shot, that’s big.”
Junior guard Keon Williams grabbed 12 rebounds, including seven on the offensive end, while Burns pulled down 11, including five offensive boards. Senior Daveon Greene had seven rebounds – two more than any Panther.
“I think we rebounded well as a team,” said Greene, who added 14 points. “Holding teams to one and out is tough to do, but we went to the boards hard. When we rebound like that, we’re a hard team to stop.”
The Panthers (28-7) had to play catch-up the entire game. Leading 11-8, Price converted a three-point play, and after a layup by Fleming County junior Todd Steward, junior guard Patrick Anderson had a putback, sophomore guard Elijah Smith made a layup and Burns came flying in for a putback to push the lead to 20-10 with 6:56 left before halftime.
“We weren’t used to the atmosphere last year,” said Williams, who chipped in with 19 points. “We weren’t sure about things. This year we showed we’ve been here before. We were aggressive. We were more focused on the game than the atmosphere.”
Fleming County pulled within single digits on three occasions in the second quarter, but each time the Bulldogs answered, the last with a Price layup at the buzzer for a 34-24 halftime lead.
The lead swelled to 40-24 after back-to-back baskets by Greene and a putback by Burns with 5:48 left in the third quarter. John Hardin’s largest lead was 64-47 on a Greene layup with 4:40 remaining.
The Bulldogs led by double digits for the first 14:32 until the Panthers made a late run. Junior point guard Darion Burns completed an old-fashioned three-point play after stealing the ball from Price.
John Hardin made 7-of-8 free throws in the final 1:17 and Greene made a layup on an in-bounds pass from Anderson as the Panthers never were able to get closer than seven.
“They key word which we used in timeouts was staying aggressive on the offensive and defensive end,” Fleming County coach Mark Starns said. “They are a good basketball team. They are a very athletic basketball team. They killed us on the board. It got away from us in the first half.”
Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.