When all the chaos died down, it was Dr. Phillips Head Coach Ben Witherspoon who stood with a look of disbelief on his face.
There — on the court at Apopka High School — he watched his players continue to celebrate around him, while he held his daughter in one arm and the district title trophy in the other.
His Panthers, who at one point had been down 15-4, rallied in the second half to beat Ocoee — and Witherspoon’s former mentor in Knights Head Coach John “Sarge” Siers — 58-53 to claim the Class 7A, District 3 championship on Valentine’s Day. The title was the first for the program since 2014.
“It’s indescribable,” Witherspoon said. “To have a vision and talk about doing this right here since I got the job and since I met these guys in June — they all told me, ‘We want to win a district championship…’ — and for them to just believe in me and do it, I’m just lucky to have these guys.”
Following a big three from senior Abdoulaye Thiam, the Panthers (19-7) found themselves up 50-42 — their biggest lead of the half — with 2:12 left in fourth quarter. Thiam’s performance was a catalyst for the Panthers, as he hit five threes in the game and picked up a game high 31 points — 24 of which came in the second half.
The Knights (20-7) wouldn’t go down easily, however, as senior shooting guard David Green hit from deep — his second in-a-row — to pull Ocoee to within five points at 50-45. Green would hit five three pointers in the fourth quarter alone, while scoring 17 of his team high 25 points in the quarter.
With 15.6 seconds left in the game, the Knights crept to within two points when Green hit another three to cut the Panthers’ lead to 55-53, but clutch free-throw shooting from Thiam, Denzel Aberdeen and Juneau Anicette — who went 5-for-6 in the last 40 seconds — helped the Panthers put the game out of reach.
Holding on late to pick up the title was a challenge for Dr. Phillips, but after the way the game started for the Panthers they would gladly accept the hard-fought win.
Before Dr. Phillips even had a chance to make their second-half rally, the Panthers had to deal with an Ocoee team that came out blazing from deep — hitting three three pointers to help give the Knights a 15-4 advantage by the end of the first quarter. The Panthers would chip away at the Knights’ lead in the second quarter, but they would still find themselves down 29-19 at the half.
“One of the pillars of our program is just the word ‘response,’” Witherspoon said. “You can’t control the environment, you can’t control the outcome, but you have 100% control of your own response and our guys just responded to being down. I’m just so proud of their response.”
And respond the Panthers did, as they came out of the gate with a 12-1 run to put themselves up 31-30 for the first time all game with 3:49 left in the third quarter. The Knights would tie the game up on two different occasions, but the Panthers would never relinquish their lead on their way to the win.
The win for Dr. Phillips seals up a spot in the FHSAA Class 7A state playoffs, while Ocoee will get an at-large bid thanks to its strong season. For Dr. Phillips it also means being able to host at least one postseason game, which is huge for the Panthers, Witherspoon said.
“We’re really good in our own gym,” Witherspoon said. “We shoot the ball pretty well there and we’re pretty comfortable there. The No. 1 motivator for us was getting home games, because we have a good chance to be No. 1 in the regional — that’s why this is a huge win.”