Panthers pull away late to down Ottawa for sub-state title
Everyone knew this would be a tough game, from the most seasoned fan who has attended every game this season to the casual observer who’s seen only one or two games, everyone from the coaches, to the players, everyone right down to the janitors, just knew it would take every ounce of effort the Paola Panther girls had to defeat their Frontier League rivals the Ottawa Cyclones again on Saturday night.
If one watches enough basketball, somewhere along the way the difficulty in defeating a team three times in one season will be discussed. The talking heads will tell you time and time again, beating a team twice in a season is a trick, but meeting the same time three times, including twice on the opponents home floor, and winning all three times is a very difficult task.
Then, when you add the pressure of beating that same team for a chance to play in the state tournament, well, it would have been easy to rationalize if the Panthers girls had not come away victorious at Ottawa on Saturday night. But that will not be necessary this time, as the Panthers pulled away from the Cyclones in the closing minutes of the game, hitting six clutch free throws in the final three minutes, turning a way too close for comfort 54-53 lead into the final seven point 60-53 tally.
To say this team has not been playing for this moment for their whole lives would be an understatement. The senior starters, Taelor Karr, Rachel Hanf, Taylor Smith and Megan Hayes have been talked about around Paola as possible state contenders since, well since what seems like forever, since Karr and Hanf were lighting up the scoreboard in Miola league games in first and second grade . . . yes, first and second grade, how’s that for expectations.
The expectations became reality on Saturday as the Panthers dispatched of the Cyclones just as they have 21 other times this season.
“All the team goals we set at the beginning of the season have been realized,” Panther Head Coach Stuart Ross told his team after the game. “Everything from now on is a bonus, but what the heck, let’s just go out to Salina and win it all.”
True, the Panthers accomplished every one of their goals, save the minor setback at Gardner when their unblemished season and league championship slipped from their grasp, but this team has been playing for bigger things this year, and for a long, long time.
But it wasn’t easy, Ross told his team after Friday’s game against Louisburg, there would be no more easy games, and he was right on. The Cyclones have many weapons, one of which is Kearsten Peoples, to say she created matchup problems for the Panthers would be an understatement, and tonight she would prove to be nearly unstoppable, as long as she was on the floor, luckily for the Panthers, she did have to go to the bench frequently.
Peoples and Karr opened the game for their teams by trading baskets, but the second basket bay Karr was a three pointer and the Panthers grabbed a 5-4 lead. Rachel Hanf knocked down a three pointer to give the Panthers an 8-4 lead before Kara McFarland hit a short jumper to cut the lead to two at 8-6. Ashlee Johnson scored three straight points for the Panthers to open what would be the Panthers biggest lead of the game until the finals minutes at five, 11-6. Peoples hit a basket and Hayes a free throw and the Panther lead stood at four, 12-8. The Cyclones re-took the lead on a three pointer by Jordan Baldwin and a bucket by McFarland at 13-12. Karr gave the lead back to the Panthers at 14-13 with a basket, but Baldwin hit a jumper and Kristen Hendrickson added a free throw and the Cyclones had re-taken the lead.
The Panthers were able to hang close in the second quarter on the strength of their bench play, as Karr picked up her third personal foul early in the quarter and went to the bench. After Kayla Offutt hit a short jump shot to cut the Cyclone lead to one at 19-18, Ottawa’s Alyssa Miller hit two consecutive jumpers to give the Cyclones their largest lead of the game at five, 23-18, a point where Coach Ross said he had his “time out hands” ready to go at the next Ottawa basket.
But, as things went, he would not need to use the time out, as Taylor Smith hit one of two free throws, Offutt hit another short jumper and Hanf hit one of two free throws and a jumper and the Panthers had regained the lead at 24-23. The Cyclones gained a little momentum back as Hendrickson scored the next five points for Ottawa on three of four free throws off fouls by Kylee Mader and a basket to give the lead back to the Cyclones at 28-24. Smith and Hanf combined for four points on a basket and two free throws and the teams were tied again at 28. The half closed on two free throws by Baldwin and a basket by Hendrickson sandwiched around a short basket by Mader, and the Cyclones held a slim 32-30 halftime lead.
In a game that would feature twenty lead changes and three ties, the first half was only a warm up for the deciding two quarters, and the teams did not disappoint coming out of the locker rooms following the intermission.
As they did to open the game, the Cyclones went inside to Peoples and she answered the call with two quick baskets sandwiched around a three pointer from Hanf to keep the Ottawa lead at three points, 36-33. Hanf and McFarland traded two free throws for a basket to keep a three point Cyclone lead, but Hanf hit five more quick points on a basket and three pointer to give the lead back to the Panthers at 40-38. The Cyclones regained the lead on a Baldwin three pointer and then the teams traded baskets to play out the third quarter, with Karr giving the Panthers a one point 44-43 lead as the quarter ended.
The lead flip-flopped back and forth through much of the fourth quarter, with neither team hitting back to back baskets until Peoples hit two straight for Ottawa to open a three point 51-48 lead for the Cyclones. Hanf answered for the Panthers with back to back field goals of her own and the Panther lead stood at one, 52-51. Hendrickson hit a basket to give the lead back to the Cyclones, but as it turned out it would be the last points Ottawa would score in the game. Karr hit a basket to give the Panthers back the lead at 54-53 and Coach Ross called a time out with 2:50 to play in the game to set the strategy to help the girls punch their ticket to Salina.
The Panthers managed to hold the ball for nearly two minutes of clock time, as the Cyclones still had fouls to give, and by the time Hendrickson’s fourth foul put Karr on the line for a one and one situation, there was only 42.1 seconds left in the contest. The Panthers had missed a few free throws early in the contest, going 10-14 through the first three quarters, but Karr, a K-State bound senior, calmly stepped to the line and drained the two charity tosses to give the Panthers a three point 56-53 lead. Following a Cyclone miss, Hayes was fouled on the rebound and with 24.1 seconds hit both ends of a one and one situation, and the Panthers were up by five at 58-53. When Rachel Schmidt knocked down her two free throws after being fouled on the ensuing rebound, the Panthers lead stood at seven and the ticket to the state championship tournament had been punched.
“There’s some good news here,” Ross told his team. “You only have three more practices, but you have to play Thursday, Friday and Saturday, no time off, we’re going to work hard in practice to condition ourselves for three straight days of play. There’s no reason to take time off now.”
Ross commented on his core group of senior leaders, saying they had been a great example to the younger girls on the team. He said they got along well with each other, and as humans they all had their disagreements, but on the court they put that all behind them and played together as a team.
“Every kid’s dream is to go to state, and possibly win state,” Ross said. “For these girls, this is it, there are no more chances.”