Fern Creek High School forward Clint Wickliffe approached his coach at halftime of Friday night’s game against Bullitt East and gave him a guarantee.
Trailing by seven at the break, coach James Schooler opted to start the 6-6 junior in the second half. Wickliffe responded by scoring the first two baskets to give the Tigers the spark they needed as they rallied past the visiting Chargers 64-54 in a battle of 24th District powers.
“At halftime, he told me, ‘I’m not going to let you lose,’” Schooler said of Wickliffe, who scored 14 of his 15 points in the second half. “He lived up to his word.”
After being down as much as 30-17 with 2:52 left in the second quarter, the Tigers (14-1), the No. 5 team in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, used a 25-point third period to right the ship. DaiQuan Jones’ layup with 2:57 left in the third gave the Tigers a 40-39 lead, their first lead since the first quarter, and they never looked back.
It was quite a turnaround from a first half, when the No. 16 Chargers (11-5) used quick first steps to slash to the basket, often beating Fern Creek defenders by a step. They used an 11-2 run at the end of the first quarter to go up 20-14, and then a 10-0 midway through the second to take their biggest lead of the game.
“The first half they were kicking us,” said Wickliffe, who was 5-of-8 from the floor. “It’s all about heart, and I told (the team) at halftime, ‘We got to go out and compete with them.’”
Wickliffe’s teammates took his word to heart. Bullitt East did not score its first basket of the second half until 4:44 remained in the third quarter. By that time, the Tigers erased most of their deficit. Tony Rogers’ layup with 3:34 in the period started a 12-2 Tigers’ run to end the quarter and take a 48-41 lead to start the fourth.
While Schooler said he told his kids at halftime to be more active, he added that he knew his team would respond.
“If you get off to a good start, you get off to a good start,” he said. “But you got to play us for 32 minutes.”
Bullitt East coach Jason Couch said he saw the Tigers came out with a lot more intensity to start the second half. While he’s not a fan of moral victories, he still came away with some positives as he’s building the Chargers, which lost all five starters from last year’s Sixth Region runners-up squad, to be ready for the postseason.
“For us to play as well as we did for most of the game, I was really pleased,” said Couch. “It’s got to give us some confidence.”
Anthony Wales added 14 points and Jones pitched in 10 on 5-of-5 shooting for the Tigers. Fern Creek, which entered Friday leading the state in shooting percentage (55.0 percent), shot 56.5 percent (26 of 46) in the win.
Fern Creek played without starting forward Ahmad Price because of an illness. Schooler said he wasn’t sure if the 6-foot-2 junior would be available for Saturday’s game against No. 19 Hopkinsville in the First Security News Year’s Bash at Muhlenberg County.
Luke Ezell’s 16 points led the Chargers, who also got 15 from Jared Osborne.
FERN CREEK 64, BULLITT EAST 54
BULLITT EAST (11-5)
Luke Ezell 16p; Connor Green 6p; Jared Osborne 15p; Konnor Polson 7p; Derrick Donigan 10p.
FERN CREEK (14-1)
A.J. Thomas 5p; Anthony Wales 14p; DaiQuan Jones 10p; Clint Wickliffe 15p, 7r; Kyree Hawkins 6p; Chance Moore 8p, 8r, 5a, 3b; Tony Rogers 6p; Jordan Coleman 2p.