LEXINGTON, Ky. – First-timers are expected to have jitters when they hit the Rupp Arena court for the state tournament, and the Fern Creek High School boys basketball was no different Thursday afternoon.
But once the Tigers hit their stride, they played like state-tournament veterans.
Chance Moore scored a game-high 21 points and Fern Creek hit a blistering 83.3 percent of its shots over the final three quarters to beat Hopkinsville 81-64 in the first round of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Sweet 16.
Fern Creek started its basketball program in 1929 and is in the Sweet 16 for the first time.
“I think we had to adjust to the floor because we usually play on a high school floor, and this is slightly bigger,” junior guard Ahmad Price said. “There were jitters and everybody was kind of nervous and the lights were really bright. That’s why we kept fumbling the ball and stuff.
“Once I saw Chance get going and getting to the cup, I started getting to the cup.”
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Price added 13 points and nine rebounds as Fern Creek (34-2) – No. 5 in the state in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings – advanced to face Ballard in Friday’s 8 p.m. quarterfinal.
Fern Creek lost to Hopkinsville 78-58 on Jan. 7 but now has won 20 straight since that defeat.
“It just came down to toughness, and we’re a slightly deeper team than Hopkinsville,” Fern Creek coach James Schooler said. “I think that played into effect.”
Shorty Cager had 17 points and four assists to lead No. 9 Hopkinsville (28-7), which shot just 37.7 percent (20 of 53) and was outscored 54-26 in the paint.
“I thought we got good shots, but we just couldn’t finish at the rim,” Hopkinsville coach Tim Haworth said. “We settled for too many long 2s in the first half and challenged shots. We dug a hole, and defensively we weren’t very good tonight.”
Fern Creek missed 10 of its first 12 shots and saw Hopkinsville take a 9-5 lead. But Clint Wickliffe’s 3-point play sparked a 20-2 run that put Fern Creek firmly in control.
Moore scored the final nine points of the surge, giving Fern Creek a 25-11 lead with 5:04 left in the first half. Moore started the game but came out at the 5:40 mark of the first quarter.
“The only thing that was said was that I needed to get to the basket more,” Moore said. “Lately I’ve been settling for shots, and they told me if I get to the basket it’s going to make the game easier. … I just came out in the second quarter and tried to get to the basket every time.”
Haworth said his team didn’t do a good job of contesting Moore.
“When he’s taking the ball to the basket and he’s doing his spin moves and Euro step, he’s tough,” Haworth said. “Our help-side defense was just non-existent. We have to slide over.”
Fern Creek led 37-22 at halftime and pushed its lead to as many as 19 points, 49-30, late in the third quarter.
Hopkinsville went into foul mode in the fourth quarter and pulled within 71-62 on James Nicholas’ 3-pointer with 2:25 remaining. But Fern Creek was solid enough at the free-throw line in the final period (16 of 23) to seal the victory.
Schooler was pleased with his team’s efficiency after its slow start.
“We took a more conscious effort to get easy transition buckets, and that makes our offense look a lot better when we can score off turnovers and hold them to one shot and get out on our fast break,” he said.
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
FERN CREEK 81, HOPKINSVILLE 64
HOPKINSVILLE (28-7) – Shorty Cager 17p, 4a; Josiah Johnson 15p, 7r; James Nicholas 10p; C.J. Henangan 11p, 6r; Tefrell Toliver 2p; Brandon Govan 5p; Josiah Patton 4p, 4a.
FERN CREEK (34-2) – Anthony Wales 9p, 5a; Ahmad Price 13p, 9r; Daiquan Jones 9p; Chance Moore 21p, 4a; Tony Rogers 4p, 3a; Jaylen Howard 4p; A.J. Thomas 1p; Clint Wickliffe 11p, 6r; Darian Childress 2p; Kyree Hawkins 7p, 5r, 3a.