Panther win streak stopped at 19 as 'Blazers prevail
As the saying goes “all good things must come to an end,” and that’s exactly what happened to the Paola Panther Girls winning streak on Friday night in Gardner.
After opening the season with 19 straight victories, the Panther girls fell six points short of a perfect regular season and an undefeated Frontier League Championship, as they fell to the Trailblazers 48-42 and hand the league championship to the ‘Blazers.
“They made us do a lot of things that we don’t want to do,” said Panther Head Coach Stuart Ross. “We now have to come to practice on Monday and feel something we haven’t felt yet this year, we have to come back after a loss.”
One could roll out any one of a number of cliches to describe this game, but as Ross said, the ‘Blazers forced the Panthers into a game they were not comfortable with, and for one of the only times this season Paola let the opposition dictate the tempo and play of the game. The Panthers were not really in sync all night long, and fell behind early, by a 6-4 count. Rachel Hanf hit a bucket and then a three pointer, to give Paola a 9-8 lead midway through the first period. It would be the only time the Panthers would lead on the entire night.
The Trailblazers re-took the lead at 11-9 to close out the first quarter, and things, for the Panthers, went down hill from there. The Blazers tuned the close game into one that wasn’t that close by opening the second quarter with back to back three pointers from Kelsie George and Ciarra Washington. The Blazer lead stretched to nine on a three pointer by Washington an at 20-11 Gardner enjoyed their biggest lead of the first half at 20-11.
Taelor Karr and Ashlee Johnson reeled the Blazers back in with Karr hitting four points and Johnson adding two for a 6-0 run to trim the lead to three at 20-17 but the Blazers hit two baskets around another basket by Johnson and the deficit stood at five heading to the intermission at 24-19.
As they had done to open the second quarter, the Blazers came out firing to open the second half, hitting two quick three pointers and the Panthers found themselves in an eleven point hole at 30-19. Johnson, Hanf and Karr all hit baskets which were answered by baskets from the Blazers and when the Panthers took a time out with just under three minutes to play in the quarter, the Blazers lead by ten at 36-26. Gardner tacked one more point onto the lead through the remainder of the quarter and with eight minutes to play the Panthers found themselves in an unfamiliar position, trailing by eleven at 41-30.
The Panthers played without the services of senior guard Taylor Smith who was ill, but seniors Karr and Hanf were not about to let this game completely slip from their grasp, as each hit four points to open the final period and when Karr hit a floater through the lane with just under three minutes to play in the game, the Panthers had gone on an 8-2 run and sliced the lead to only five points at 43-38.
Four consecutive free throws by Hanf, sandwiched around a couple of missed free throw opportunities by the Blazers and the Panthers found themselves right in the thick of things with about 30 seconds to play and trailing by three at 45-42. But the Blazers would not be denied and as the Panthers were forced to foul, Lauren Buckles hit three of four free throws to bump the Gardner margin back to six points and the Panthers unbeaten mark was history as the Blazers sealed the 48-42 victory.
“Here’s the thing that matters,” Ross told his team after the game. “The season on the schedule is done. We’re not 0-0 just like before the Bishop Ward game way back in December.”
Ross told his team there was a lot of work to do, and now they had to go out and win six more ball games. He told the team they would have to put this out of their minds and come back on Tuesday ready to play. They would have to think and practice like they had all year long after a win.
“What it boils down to is this,” he said. “We didn’t do the little things, this game will check the fiber of our team.”
The Panthers return to action Tuesday night in a home game to open sub-state play against Prairie View. If the brackets hold up, the Panthers can look forward to a re-match against Louisburg, and then potentially a third game against Ottawa. The final two games of the sub-state will be played at Ottawa, with the chance for a state tournament title on the line.