With those few words, Paola Panthers Head Coach Stuart Ross explained how what had been one of the most special seasons in Paola High School Girls basketball history had come crashing back to earth with two losses in less than 24 hours. How the Panther dreams of a state championship died with hard fought double overtime loss at the hands of the Concordia Panthers, and then hopes of a bounce back victory in the consolation game ended in a 19 point loss to the Cheney High School Cardinals.
The Panthers opened the game with a make shift starting line-up, turning an already difficult coaching job for Ross into one that was nearly impossible. Ross was already faced with the task of trying to get his team ready to play in a game after giving all they had the night before and falling in double overtime, then had to deal with an off court incident which forced a partial game suspension for the five players involved.
The unfortunate part of the whole situation is, not only did the Panthers lose twice as many games in less than 24 hours than they did over the entire season, the legacy of a team that could go down as one of the best Panther teams ever, will be clouded for years to come.
For a quarter and a half the Panthers hung with Cheney. Even after the Cardinals opened a quick four point lead, senior Coutney Clouse, drawing only her second starting assignment of the season, made the best of the situation and brought the Panthers back with a free throw and a basket to make the score 4-3. Clouse would be the Panthers leading scorer on the day with 15 points. Taylor Smith tied the score for Paola at 6-6 with a three pointer and Rachel Schmidt gave the Panthers their first lead of the game at 8-7 a short time later. Clouse hit a three pointer to tie the game at 11 and Megan Hayes hit two free throws to give Paola another two point lead at 13-11. Allyssa Nikkel hit a free throw to cut the lead to one, and the Panthers enjoyed a 13-12 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Hayes and Merissa Quick traded baskets to open the second quarter to keep the Panther lead at one at 15-14, but Nikkel hit two free throws and a three pointer to open a 19-15 lead for the Cardinals. Rachel Hanf and Clouse sandwiched three pointers around a bucket by Whitney Pinkley and the game was tied at 21 each. It was an encouraging start, for the troubled Panthers, but things started to unravel from there. Nikkel hit four straight free throws and Quick hit a basket to give Cheney a six point lead. Schmidt cut the lead back to four, but Kylie Patterson hit a three pointer and Quick added two free throws and the lead was nine at 32-23. Hanf added a basket and Rachel Schomacker hit a free throw for Cheney and at half time the Cardinals enjoyed a 33-25 lead.
Quick and Patterson opened the second half with baskets sandwiched around a three pointer from Taelor Karr and the Cheney lead stood at nine points at 37-28. The Cardinals ended the third quarter on a 10-5 run with all the Panther points being scored by Clouse on a basket and her third three pointer of the game. The quarter ending run by the Cardinals opened a 13 point, 47-34 lead for Cheney and drained away what little life was left in the Panthers.
The fourth quarter saw the Cardinals build a 20 point lead, mostly on the dead eye foul shooting of Nikkel who went 11 of 12 from the charity stripe in the quarter on the way to setting a new state tournament record for most free throws made in a game at 17. The Panthers followed up their 27 foul performance in the semi-final loss to Concordia with a 26 foul performance in the third place game. The Cardinals scored their last 11 points from the free throw line.
One of the bright spots for the Panthers was Clouse, as she closed her Panther playing days with a career day, hitting five of nine field goals including four of seven from three point range and one of two from the free throw line for 15 point in the contest.
“It felt good,” Clouse said. “I started out really nervous, but I just said a little prayer and let things happen.”
The Panther reserves, as they have many times during the season, again stepped up and contributed in many ways, many gained valuable game experience on the biggest of stages, a state tournament game, and not just some mop up duty, but from the beginning when the game was on the line. For all the first quarter and into the second quarter, the reserves went toe to toe with Cheney, which played the tournament with only one senior, who was in street clothes, making a statement that they would be a force to be dealt with in the years to come.
“The reserves this year are a great story,” Ross said. “I say applause to those kids, they proved today that they belong.”
Despite all the distractions, Ross said he was proud of his team, and despite all the challenges and distractions, he was not going to let his feelings for his team be shaken.
“I’m proud of each and every one of those kids and I love them to death,” Ross concluded. “They all know that I’d go to the wall for every one of them, despite the issues of the last few hours.”
The Panthers closed the season with a 23-3 record.