MOREHEAD — Once Fleming County had completed Friday's 60-45 victory over Rowan County, thus earning a trip to the Boys' Sweet Sixteen, it didn't take long for emotions to overtake Coach Mark Starns.
"After what happened at Henderson last year, being dismissed with a 99-45 record, I feel like I'm vindicated," Starns said, choking back tears. "That's what I feel like. I'm vindicated."
Vindicated by winning Fleming's first 16th Region title. The Panthers, who had played most of their days in the 10th Region, will face the winner of the 5th Region in the first round of the State Tournament, Thursday at 1:30 p.m., in Rupp Arena.
They made it by beating Rowan for a fifth time.
Fleming (28-6) swept the Vikings 81-76 in the EKC tourney, 80-61 and 61-59 in regularly scheduled meetings, and 66-58 for the 61st District title.
Morehead State University's 6,500-seat Johnson Arena was nearly filled Friday.
Defending region champ Rowan (20-14) came prepared and led 24-12 when Ryne Callahan made a free throw with 4:40 left in the first half.
Then, things fell apart.
Fleming closed the half with an 11-0 run to make it a one-point game and, with 1:02 left in the half, Rowan lost top player Tyler Thacker to a knee injury.
Thacker, driving to the hoop, went down in pain and grabbed his left knee. Vikings coach and Tyler's dad Shawn Thacker said early results indicate a possible ACL injury.
"He's a tough kid and fierce competitor, and as you can see tonight, probably the heart and soul of our basketball team, and it was a tough loss for us," Shawn Thacker said.
"... In the locker room, the kids, they knew. But I was proud of my kids. I thought we kept fighting. We just struggled on the offensive end."
Tourney MVP Darion Burns, a 5-foot-11 junior, led the Panthers with 21 points, five assists, six steals and no turnovers.
"It was a big win for us. I'm just at a loss for words right now," Burns said. "It means a lot to us in the community, to win our first region title in the 16th Region."
Brady Saunders added 18 points and four assists for the winners. Troy Steward had 11 points and matched Desmond McAdams for the team lead in rebounds, seven.
"They all were relentless," Starns said.
Fleming got to rip-and-run in the second half.
Having shot 6-for-23 (26.1 percent) in the first half, Fleming went 16-for-31 (51.6) the rest of the way. Rowan went the other way, following a 9-for-20 (45.0) half with an 8-for-29 (27.6) second half.
The Panthers went on a 10-0 run to take a 35-29 lead. A 9-0 flurry to open the fourth quarter made it 48-32.
Burns' third and final dunk of the night, with 3:00 left, provided the biggest gap of the night, 54-36.
"We weren't worried. We knew they were going to give us their best shot in the first half," Burns said. "We just had to come out in the second half and throw our punch, and that's what we did. We got a big lead and we just kept it."
Callahan came off the bench to lead Rowan with 13 points. Jalen Stone scored 10. Josh Barnard had 11 rebounds to go with five points.
Fleming co. 60, rowan co. 45
ROWAN CO. (20-14) — J. Stone 10, Newsome 0, Thacker 6, Brown 7, Barnard 5, Graham 2, Callahan 13, Lee 2. Totals 17-49 5-11 45.
FLEMING CO. (28-6) — Burns 21, Crisp 8, McAdams 2, Steward 11, Saunders 18. Totals 22-54 13-21 60.
Rowan County 15 9 8 13—45
Fleming County 7 16 16 21—60
All-tournament team — Dikembe Dixson and Logan Salow (Ashland Blazer), Kyle Skaggs and Ross Lane (Russell); Josh Barnard, Tyler Thacker and Jalen Stone (Rowan Co.); Austin Crisp, Troy Steward, Desmond McAdams, Brady Saunders and Darion Burns (Fleming Co.). MVP — Darion Burns.
Mark Maloney: (859) 231-3229. Twitter: @markmaloneyhl. Blog: markmaloney.bloginky.com