For the first time in 33 years, the Fern Creek boys’ basketball team has made it to a regional final.
Anthony Wales scored 17 points, and Ahmad Price and Clint Wickliffe added 14 each to lead the Tigers to a 72-62 victory over host Valley in the Sixth Region semifinals Friday evening.
In a frenetic game that saw both teams make big runs throughout, the chaos started early – actually, it started during warmups.
Valley coach DeJuan Wheat said his team was not aware it was the designated home team for the game, and a couple players had to go back home to get the right uniform for the game. That forced the former University of Louisville star to make changes to his previously submitted starting lineup. Because of that, officials assessed an administrative technical against the Vikings.
Wales made one of the two free throws to start the game, and the Tigers took full advantage of confusion. As Valley started with just six players, the Tigers (32-2), the No. 5 team in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings, jumped out to a 14-0 lead just 2:09 into the contest.
But, as Valley’s remaining players made their way back to the bench, the Vikings (22-9) made their way back into the game. The Vikings especially got a boost when Raekwon Evans entered the contest.
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The senior scored four points during a 10-2 run that ended the first quarter and cut Fern Creek’s lead to just 20-14. With 4:09 left in the first half, the Vikings had clawed back to within 25-22 after a Curt Lewis layup.
Fern Creek coach James Schooler said he wasn’t surprised by the Vikings comeback, although he even admitted is was a “weird” game.
“This is March Madness,” he said. “Anything happens. It’s wild, and only the strong survive.”
The Tigers indeed survived, as that was as close as the Vikings got all night. However, it was anything but easy the rest of the way.
Fern Creek ended the half on a 17-2 run over the last 3:55. That run also culminated with the first action senior Chance Moore saw all night. Before the game, coach James Schooler elected to pull both Moore and DaiQuan Jones from the starting lineup.
Schooler said the decisions were opportunities to teach both players about teamwork and character.
“My job is to continue to help support his parents and his family to make Chance the best man he can be,” Schooler said. “And he’s going to be a great man. Tonight, was one of those lessons.”
Moore finished with just six points, but he scored all of them in the second quarter to help the Tigers take a 42-24 lead at halftime.
Wales scored back-to-back baskets to end an 8-0 fourth quarter run for the Tigers, who led 68-47 with 4:42 remaining in the game.
At that point, it looked like the Tigers’ first regional final since 1984 – when they were in the Seventh Region – was securely in the bag. However, the Vikings had other ideas.
Valley used a 15-2 run to make it an eight-point game in the game’s final minute. Sophomore Cameron Wilson, who also scored 22 points for the Vikings, scored seven during the run. His 3-pointer made it 70-62 with :47 left.
“We preach everyday to put teams out and step on their throat,” Wales said. “We let up. I put that on myself as a point guard. I can’t let my team give up a 20-point lead like that.”
The Vikings had a couple chances to get closer, but Price came up with a block on a Vikings fast break opportunity. Then, on Valley’s next possession, Evans was called for an illegal screen, his fifth foul, with :18.9 remaining.
“When I look back on this season, this is the game I will think about,” Wheat said. “Because we fought back in this game a couple times against the number one team in the state, to me.”
Fern Creek returns to Valley on Tuesday and will play the winner of the Pleasure Ridge Park-Doss semifinal. Doss is the two-time defending regional champs and reached the state final last season. The Dragons also eliminated the Tigers in last year’s regional tournament.
“We’re going to do what we’ve been doing since we lost last March,” Schooler said. “That’s work, and just continue to do this for something greater than us.”