In the aftermath of witnessing a stunning upset that few outside the team could have seen coming, Starr’s Mill boys basketball coach Brandon Hutchins tried to piece together how his players delivered the favored Fayette County Tigers their first region loss of the season.
“They just had it in them tonight,” Hutchins said as he tried to keep his emotions in check. “I really can’t explain it.”
Starr’s Mill (14-8, 6-4) never trailed on its home court Friday when it took down AAAAA Region 3 leader Fayette County (17-6, 10-1) 69-59. The Tigers tried again and again to stage a comeback, but the Panthers kept their composure throughout the contest, showing few signs of weakness despite being the underdog.
“We’re not going to be the flashiest team. We’re not going to be the most athletic team, but our kids work hard, our coaches work hard, and they believe in our system, and that’s all you could ask,” Hutchins said.
On Starr’s Mill’s senior night, the two seniors were not hard to find early on. Guard Kyle Evert began the game with a layup, forward Nick Karli hit a two-point jump shot, and Evert hit a 3-pointer to give the Panthers a 7-4 lead.
“He’s been in the program four years,” Hutchins said of Evert, who finished with 11 points. “That’s what hard work does for you. He’s been a great teammate, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way he played tonight.”
Fayette County senior Noah Gurley scored the final five points of the first quarter for his team, but junior forward Chase Sands made two consecutive layups over the outstretched arms of Gurley to preserve Starr’s Mill’s lead, 17-13, at the end of the first period.
A layup from Tigers senior point guard Austin Nesmith tied the game at 17-17 with 6:20 remaining in the first half. That was the closest Fayette County got to the lead the rest of the game. Starr’s Mill responded with a 13-4 run to close out the first half, capped off by two layups from sophomore forward Nate Allison, who led the game with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
With Starr’s Mill holding a 30-21 lead at halftime, Fayette County was determined to regain control in the second half, but shots still weren’t falling for the top team in the region. The Tigers cut the Panthers’ lead to six a couple times in the third quarter, but its press defense was unable to turnover Starr’s Mill enough to claw back into contention.
“I thought they played well. They took it to us,” said Fayette County head coach Andre Flynn. “They were ready for us.”
At the end of the third quarter, Starr’s Mill held onto a controlling 49-42 advantage, leaving at least a chance for Fayette County to spoil the Panthers’ upset bid. The Tigers started heating up late in the game, with a pair of 3-pointers from sophomore guard Josh Dupree and Nesmith and a long two-point jumper from Gurley, who led his team with 18 points.
Starr’s Mill’s ability to knock down foul shots, however, made it nearly impossible for Fayette County to pull within striking range of the lead. Hutchins said every day that isn’t a game day, his players are required to go to the gym and shoot 50 foul shots. The practice paid off, because in the final two-and-a-half minutes of Friday night’s game, the Panthers went 8-for-8 from the line.
“That’s a signature win for our basketball program,” Hutchins said. “With a young team with two seniors, to come out and beat a team of that caliber, with how well coached they are with the athletes they have, that shows a lot about our heart and our team’s compassion.”
In the postgame locker room, players were throwing water on each other as they celebrated their improbable victory. Hutchins didn’t mince words when he explained the importance of Friday night’s outcome.
“I told them to enjoy it,” Hutchins said. “You’ll remember this game for a lifetime.”
It took a while for Fayette County senior guard Darryl Langford to get into her rhythm, but once she started making shots, Starr’s Mill’s chances of winning started slipping away.
The Fayette County Tigers (16-6, 9-2) overcame a sluggish start at Starr’s Mill Friday to beat the Panthers (11-11, 4-6) 48-42. Langford scored nearly half of her team’s points, pouring in 20, including four second-half 3-pointers.
“She played big down the stretch,” Fayette County head coach John Strickland said of Langford.
While Fayette County controlled three quarters of the game, the first quarter belonged to Starr’s Mill. Senior forward Kelly Kozusko made a layup with 3:15 remaining in the first period to put the Panthers ahead 10-4. Freshman guard Alice Anne Hudson, who led her team with 16 points, had a steal and fastbreak layup at the buzzer to catapult Starr’s Mill in front 20-8 at the end of the first quarter.
“She’s a great player, and she’s still learning the game,” said Starr’s Mill head coach Shane Ratliff of Hudson. “I’m super excited about the future with her.”
The Starr’s Mill faithful were quickly quieted, as the Tigers opened the second quarter on an 11-0 run.
“I just told them we’ve got a take it a little bit at a time. There’s no 12-point shot,” Strickland said of the advice he gave his team after the first quarter.
The Panthers didn’t score in the second quarter until there was 1:17 on the clock, and by that time the score was tied 21-21.
Hudson made a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left in the half to give Starr’s Mill some optimism, leading 24-22 at halftime.
“We played pretty well in the first quarter, we just didn’t carry it over into the second,” Ratliff said. “When you’re playing a good team like Fayette, you’ve got to play four strong quarters.”
A Maegan Barkley three-point play gave Fayette County a 25-24 advantage early in the third quarter, and the Tigers never relinquished the lead from that point on. Starr’s Mill didn’t make it easy, however.
After Fayette County took a 36-30 lead, Starr’s Mill ended the third quarter on a 5-0 run, including a 3-pointer from senior Michaela Cushing to trail 36-35 with one quarter to play.
The Tigers once again struck first in the fourth quarter, as a 3-pointer from senior guard Adayah Glymph gave Fayette County a 38-36 lead. Starr’s Mill tied it up twice, but each time the Tigers responded, making just a few more shots than the Panthers down the stretch to escape the upset.
Starr’s Mill’s girls lost 41-36 Saturday at Blessed Trinity and the Starr’s Mill boys fell 60-49 Saturday at Blessed Trinity.
To purchase photos, click here.