Fern Creek High School laid its firmest brick yet in the boys’ basketball rebuilding job of first-year coach James Schooler, making the semifinals of the Louisville Invitational Tournament for the first time in 10 years.
The Tigers got 12 points apiece from Demetrius Stanton, Shawn Best and Daylin Johnson and played with high energy from the start in knocking off top-seeded Bullitt East 55-52 in the quarterfinals of the at Valley High.
When ninth-seeded Fern Creek (13-4) faces fifth-seeded Pleasure Ridge Park, which beat St. Xavier 67-52, at 10 a.m. Saturday, it will be the Tigers’ first LIT final four game since a runner-up finish in 2004. And it’s another big step for a program that went 6-26 last season.
“It means a lot to us,” said Schooler, who was an assistant on Ballard’s state runner-up team last year. “We tell the guys to stay humble, continue to work hard. I have 10 seniors on this team, so for us, this is laying a foundation for a new era of basketball at Fern Creek High School.”
Fern Creek avenged a 53-52 loss at Bullitt East (15-2) on Jan. 9 in beating its 24th District rival for the first time since Jan. 26, 2007, when the teams were not in the same district.
“Bullitt East is a tough program and a program that has been on top for a long time,” Schooler said. “For our kids to listen to the scouting report (and) work hard at practice to prepare for this game, it’s just monumental for our school.”
One of those seniors, Johnson, finished with a team-high 10 rebounds and made a 3-pointer and the go-ahead basket in the fourth quarter. His nickname is Pacman because of his high motor, and Schooler’s said he’s Fern Creek’s version of former University of Kentucky glue guy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Johnson said it felt “tremendous” to get his first victory over Bullitt East and have his team go deep in a top tournament.
“We’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he said. “I’m real excited about that (Saturday), to go out and play hard.”
Fern Creek started fast and got up 27-21 with 2:55 left in the second quarter before a 12-0 run by Bullitt East spanning halftime put the Chargers in front.
Down 35-29, the Tigers countered with 11 straight points and took a 40-35 lead with 3:08 left in the third quarter. During that stretch, Bullitt East guard Rhett Troutman injured an ankle on defense and sat the rest of the game.
Bullitt East coach Bob Blackburn was unsure how long Troutman, who had eight points, will be out but said the injury was “pretty bad.”
The Chargers recovered to take a 43-42 lead by the end of the third quarter, and the teams traded short runs to reach a 50-all tie.
Fern Creek went ahead 55-52 on a layup by Marti White with 31 seconds remaining, and Bullitt East had a final possession with 12.3 to play. But Brandon Klefot and Bailey Rakes each missed a 3-point shot that would have tied it.
“When you play top programs and you play in big games, punches are going to be thrown. You punch back,” Schooler said. “At the end, you’ve got to withstand those and make a run and end the game playing solid defense. I thought we did that.”
Bullitt East finished 1 of 13 from 3-point range and 1l of 22 on free throws. Tyler Sharpe led the Chargers with 12 points but went only 3 of 10 at the foul line.
Blackburn said the fact that Bullitt East, which missed school on Friday because of snow, knew only a few hours before the 4 p.m. tipoff that it would be able to play was not a factor in the loss.
After Troutman’s injury, “we kind of weathered the storm,” he said. “We just had too many turnovers that were uncharacteristic of us and a very poor shooting night. Give credit to Fern Creek.”
Give credit to Schooler. He’s tried to bring a winning attitude to Fern Creek after working on the staff at powerhouse Ballard.
“Ballard is a place where everybody from the custodian to the lunch-room workers are like, ‘Let’s go. We’re winning a state championship,'” he said. “So we just brought that winning mentality and put it into Fern Creek. Fern Creek has never been to a state championship. It’s never won a region. That’s something I want to do for the community.”
– Stanton 12, Johnson 12, Best 12, Jackson 6, Cook 3, Moore 3, Kinslow 3, White 2, Hawkins 2.Fern Creek (13-4)
– Sharpe 12, Klefot 9, Bacon 8, R. Troutman 8, Farris 7, E. Troutman 4, Allen 2, Rakes 2.Bullitt East (15-2)
– Stanton 3, Cook, Johnson, Jackson; Sharpe.3-point goals