With time running out on the clock, Dr. Phillips found itself down 50-47 after Olympia’s Tyeree Bryan hit a shot from deep to put the Titans up with 31 seconds left in overtime during Friday night’s Class 7A, District 3 championship game.
What followed was an ending fitting for a rivalry between two schools — which sit less than four miles apart — that have now produced two of the best games of the year.
As precious seconds ticked away, Panthers’ junior guard Denzel Aberdeen pulled up from deep — firing off a shot with 22 seconds as he was fouled on a collision with Olympia’s Jacari White. The ball fell through the bottom of the net as the whistle blew — igniting the Panthers’ bench area into pandemonium. Aberdeen would hit the following free throw for the four-point play to give the Panthers the 51-50 edge.
“I just had confidence in him, he’s the best point guard here,” said Panthers head coach Ben Witherspoon on what went through his head as the shot went off. “He made a mistake the play before, but I’m keeping the ball in his hand — I trust him, and he came through.”
Despite three different shots on goal — two from inside the paint — for Olympia (20-6) in the dying seconds of the game, Aberdeen’s clutch shot would prove to be the difference maker; handing the Panthers (19-3) their second consecutive district title, and their ninth-straight win over the Titans. Aberdeen finished the night with 13 points.
The win was also the second game in-a-row that the Titans and Panthers have needed overtime to decide a victor, with Dr. Phillips beating Olympia 51-43 back on Friday, Jan. 29 — a win that helped push them into first place in the district.
Going into Friday night’s game Dr. Phillips was coming off of a win over Apopka — which was preceded by a bye — while Olympia dispatched Ocoee and West Orange to get to the title game. In the so called “District of Death,” Witherspoon said he expected an absolute brawl from the rival Titans going into the championship game.
“They’re a good team — they’re the No. 4 team in the state for a reason,” Witherspoon said. “It’s a tough game whenever we play them — it’s a rivalry game — especially in this environment, the district championship. This is what we expected.”
Unlike their last matchup, Dr. Phillips never broke out to a double-digit lead, as the two teams largely exchanged blows throughout the entire first half — with the biggest lead being nine points for the Panthers. A big part of the offense for the Panthers came from Riley Kugel, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the second quarter alone.
“They’re a good team — they’re the No. 4 team in the state for a reason. It’s a tough game whenever we play them — it’s a rivalry game — especially in this environment, the district championship. This is what we expected.”
— Ben Witherspoon, Dr. Phillips head coach
For the Titans it was White who offered up the biggest offensive output, as the senior put up 11 points to keep the Titans right in the game. White would go on to finish with a game high of 21 points. Teammates EJ “Jizzle” James and Bryan would each contribute 10 points each.
Coming out of the break — with the Panthers leading 21-20 — both teams once again continued the first-half trend of exchanging shots as time ticked on, but it was with 1:11 left on the clock when things got stressful.
After Olympia’s Jalen Adams helped put the Titans up 45-41, a dunk from Ernest Udeh Jr. — his sixth dunk of the night — and a two-pointer from Jordan Tillery with 47 seconds left tied the game up at 45-45; sending the game into overtime where the Panthers would pull out the hard fought 51-50 win. Udeh finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Winning the district title was big, Witherspoon said, but how it potentially sets the Panthers up in the state playoffs is even bigger.
“It’s more so about getting three home games in regionals possibly,” Witherspoon said. “This obviously isn't our big goal for the season — this is something that had to happen on the way to that. We really wanted to have those games in our gym.”
With districts out of the way, the Panthers and Titans will now enter the Class 7A playoffs, as this year’s playoff format allows only district winners and runner-ups to compete.
Dr. Phillips will play host to Class 7A, District 4 runner-up Oviedo (14-10) Thursday, Feb. 18, while Olympia will travel to Class 7A, District 4 champion University (16-7) Friday, Feb. 19.