One down and two to go. The Paola Panther Girls Basketball team got the monkey off their back so to speak, as they downed the Rose Hill Rockets 64-51 in the opening round of the Kansas State 4-A Championship Tournament in Salina on Thursday. The Panthers have not made it out of the first round of the state tournament in over 20 years.
“It’s a big weight off our shoulders,” said Panther Senior and K-State bound guard Taelor Karr. “We didn’t want to be disappointed.” The Panthers were not about to have a repeat of 2007, when the girls came into the state tournament with a sterling record only to fall in the first round.
“This game was all about winning and moving on,” said Panthers Head Coach Stuart Ross. “We were not going to be happy just showing up.”
The Panthers were in control from the opening tip, but pesky play from the Rockets and a slightly sluggish performance from the Panthers allowed Rose Hill to hang around for most of the first half, trailing by just two points at the half at 26-24.
The standout player for the Panthers on this day was senior and Emporia State bound Rachel Hanf, as she torched the Rockets for a season high 30 points. From the outset, Rose Hill made it obvious they were not going to let Karr beat them, but they could not stop both the Panther stars, as Karr struggled from the field, Hanf was able to work free for shots.
“We just tried to come out and be aggressive,” Hanf said. “We weren’t going to hold back.”
Hanf and Karr opened the scoring for the Panthers, each hitting field goals, with Karr adding a free throw to open a 5-0 lead for Paola. Rachel Schmidt added a bucket prompting a Rose Hill time out with 3:09 to play in the first quarter and the Panthers leading 7-2. Paola stretched the lead to six on a three pointer by Hanf to open a 10-4 lead. Rose Hill baskets by Kelli Herbel and Whitney Bates cut the Panther lead to two at 10-8, but Hanf and Allison Wood scored the last four points of the quarter for the Panthers to open a 14-8 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Rose Hill cut the lead in half to open the second quarter as Kelsey Webber hit a three pointer, and the lead was sliced to two as Randi Lucas hit a short jumper following a Karr free throw, and the Panthers were ahead by two at 15-13. Ashlee Johnson and Taylor Smith hit baskets for the Panthers and the lead was back to six points at 19-13, and the lead swelled to nine after Hanf hit two more free throws and Kayla Offutt nailed a three pointer to give Paola a 24-15 lead, prompting another Rose Hill time out with 4:12 to play in the half.
Rose Hill came out of the time out with Lucas and Keelyn Bonar hitting baskets to cut the Panther lead to five. Johnson missed the front end of a one and one and Hanf hit a basket to give the Panthers a 26-19 lead, but to Rose Hill’s credit, they would not go away, as Herbel hit a trey and Bailey Burnett and Herbel hit single free throws and the Rocket had cut the lead to two at the intermission, 26-24.
All year long the Panthers had made a habit of breaking games open with big third quarters, and tonight was no different. Using a tenacious defense and timely shooting by Hanf and the reserves, the Panthers took the two point half time advantage and ballooned it to ten by the end of the period.
Hanf hit a three pointer to open the Panther scoring in the second half, and after a basket by Webber and a free throw from Kristy Herman cut the Panther lead back to two at 29-27, Panther reserves Allison Wood and Rachel Schmidt each hit buckets to open up a six point advantage for Paola at 33-27. Karr broke free for a basket to give Paola an eight point lead, and the Panther lead grew to ten after baskets by Johnson and Hanf answered a Rose Hill basket by Bates. Herman hit a single free throw and Karr nailed a three pointer for the Panthers and the lead was 12 at 42-30. Burnett hit a jumper at the buzzer to cut the Panther lead back to 10 points at 42-32.
Hayes and Hanf traded points with Lucas to keep the Panther lead at 10 points at 46-36. Baker hit a free throw for Rose Hill and then Smith and Hanf each hit baskets and the Panthers enjoyed a 50-37 lead with just under five and a half minutes to play in the game. The game turned into a free throw shooting contest from that point on, as Hanf hit four straight for the Panthers and Lucas and Herman each hit two for the Rockets and as Paola called time out two minutes later, the lead remained at 13 points 54-41.
Karr and Offutt hit single free throws and Webber and Lucas each hit two free throws and the Rockets shaved two points off the lead, and with just under two and half minutes to play, the Panthers lead was 11 at 56-45. Hanf hit three of four free throws and Herman hit a three pointer and with just under two minutes to play in the game, the Panthers lead remained at 11 at 58-48. Smith and Karr hit three of four free throws and Herman hit another three pointer to make the score 62-51. Fittingly, Hanf closed out the scoring for Paola, hitting her 29th and 30th points from the foul line, giving the Panthers their final margin at 64-51.
After the game, Ross said he was pleased with his team’s effort, especially on defense and especially his bench players.
“They (the reserves) came through spectacularly,” Ross said. “They’re finally buying in to the fact that anyone from the bench can contribute. They relaxed, and I’m proud of them, it takes the whole team to win, not just the ones who get all the glory on the scoreboard.”
The Panthers will take on second seeded Concordia in the semi-final game today, Friday, March 13 at 3:00 at the Bicentennial Center in Salina. The winner of that game will advance to the state championship game at 4:00 on Saturday, the loser will play in the consolation final game at Noon on Saturday.