Being focused at tipoff and cool down the stretch helped the Pleasure Ridge Park boys’ basketball players on Wednesday night as they began their defense of the Sixth Region crown.
Host PRP used rebounding and an efficient offense to grab a 15-point first-half lead against Fern Creek, then made 14 of 14 free throws in the final four minutes to hold off the feisty Tigers 78-69 in the quarterfinals of the regional tournament.
The Panthers advanced to face Doss, which beat North Bullitt 54-35, on Friday in a 6 p.m. semifinal at Valley.
“Our mental preparedness at the outset of that game changed the complexion of the game,” PRP coach Dale Mabrey said. “That’s been a problem throughout the year, and we’re a very, very average basketball team when we’re not focused. But I think the kids have turned that corner now.”
Point guard Antonio McDaniels had 18 points, five rebounds and four assists and earned praise from Mabrey for managing Fern Creek’s full-court defense to lead PRP (24-7). He made all six of his free throws in the final minutes, including a pair with 20 seconds left to give PRP a 74-69 lead.
Fellow senior Lamontray Harris had 12 points, 16 rebounds, four assists and four steals, and Mabrey credited him for getting the Panthers, No. 7 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, ready to play. They led 20-13 after the first quarter and 43-28 near the end of the second.
But Fern Creek (19-12), which trailed by 13 at halftime, never gave up, scoring the first six points of the third quarter to get within single digits.
After PRP went back ahead by 10 with 3:08 left in the game, Fern Creek got six straight points from Demetrius Stanton as part of a 9-2 run to close within 70-67.
Fern Creek regained possession but missed a 3-point try and a shot inside, then could get no closer as the Panthers hit eight free throws in the final 35 seconds. PRP finished 25 of 28 at the line.
“Usually in practice we were goofing on the free-throw line and not really taking it serious, and Coach Mabrey really put a strong emphasis on, ‘We’ve got to shoot free throws, and we’ve got to hit them,’ ” McDaniels said.
Senior Joe Jackson scored 21 points to lead Fern Creek, which had a turnaround season under first-year coach James Schooler. The Tigers were just 6-26 last season.
“I think our effort has been there all year long, and it’s kind of been the staple of our program,” Schooler said. “Just playing hard, never quitting for 32 minutes. It showed there, and we almost had a shot to pull it out.”
Richard Gaines added 15 points, including four free throws in the final 13 seconds, and six rebounds for PRP. D’Angelo Hunter had 12 points and seven boards, and Drew Glass had 10 points and six rebounds.
Now the Panthers move on to face No. 12 Doss in what could be the marquee game of the tournament. The Dragons won at PRP 72-67 in the first game of the season.