LEXINGTON, Ky. – The greatest season in 88 years of Fern Creek High School boys basketball came to an end Saturday night at the hands of one of the state’s stingiest defenses.
Cooper, allowing just 48.7 points per game this season, put the clamps on the high-scoring Tigers on Saturday night and recorded a 51-44 victory in the semifinals of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16 in front of 11,603 fans at Rupp Arena.
Fern Creek entered the game averaging 74.4 points per contest, but Cooper maintained its methodical pace for nearly all four quarters.
“We knew we had to grind this game; we knew we weren’t going to run up and down with them,” Jaguars coach Tim Sullivan said. “Sometimes teams don’t understand because of the ego and the pride. They think, ‘Oh, man. We can do this. We can outrun someone.’ We knew we couldn’t do that, and our guys bought in.”
Sean McNeil, a Bellarmine University signee, hit 4 of 7 3-point tries and scored 22 points to lead Cooper (31-4). The Jaguars – No. 8 in the state in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings – extended their winning streak to 17 and will face No. 4 Bowling Green (35-2) in Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship game.
Both Fern Creek and Cooper qualified for the Sweet 16 for the first time this season, though the Tigers began varsity play in 1929 and the Jaguars in 2008.
Anthony Wales scored 13 points to lead No. 5 Fern Creek (35-3), which entered with a 21-game winning streak. Ahmad Price added eight points, 11 rebounds and five assists.
Fern Creek had defeated No. 6 Ballard 55-52 in an emotional all-Louisville quarterfinal on Friday night, but Tigers coach James Schooler said he didn’t sense a letdown Saturday.
“Coming into the game I had a great feeling,” Schooler said. “We knew it would be four tough games in four days. … Today was not a good day, but we’ll learn to pick our heads up and get better and get back on the high horse.”
The score was tied at 31 entering the fourth quarter, and the Jaguars scored the first 10 points to take control.
McNeil hit a 3-pointer at the 6:08 mark and followed with a basket for a 36-31 lead with 4:52 left. Brayden Runion’s 3-point play made it 39-31 at the 4:18 mark, and McNeil’s two free throws pushed the lead to 41-31 with 2:51 remaining.
“That was probably the most athletic team we’ve seen this year,” Runion said. “We knew they were going to be flying, so I ball-faked every time I got the ball in the paint and just watched them fly by and tried to finish through the contact.”
Fern Creek was 0 for 3 with three turnovers on its first six possessions of the fourth quarter before Wales’ basket made it 41-33 with 2:43 left.
Price’s basket pulled Fern Creek within 47-44 with 28.2 seconds left, but Dante Hendrix and Adam Kunkel both hit a pair of free throws in the final seconds to seal it.
“We struggled with the tempo the first three quarters of the game,” Schooler said. “We didn’t get into our pace until late in the game when we were in scramble mode. Any time you play a disciplined, well-coached team as Cooper, you’re kind of floundering and trying to make something happen.”
The bigger Tigers won the rebounding battle 27-15, but Sullivan said his team offset that by forcing 13 turnovers and committing just six.
“That shows me were tough,” Sullivan said. “We were tough, we were tough, we were tough.”
Schooler said he was proud of what his team accomplished in getting Fern Creek to the Sweet 16 for the first time.
“These kids we put in those uniforms this year fought for us,” Schooler said. “We’re not easy guys to play for because we demand so much, and they gave it to us. I’ll walk out of here with my head up high.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
COOPER 51, FERN CREEK 44
FERN CREEK (35-3) – Anthony Wales 13p; Ahmad Price 8p, 11r, 5a; Daiquan Jones 8p, 7r; Chance Moore 6p; Jaylen Howard 3p; Clint Wickliffe 4p; Kyree Hawkins 2p.
COOPER (31-4) – Dante Hendrix 6p; Adam Kunkel 4p; Brayden Runion 15p, 5r; Sean McNeil 22p; Blaine Walters 4p.