- February 3, 2021
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the game itself had long been over, but that didn’t stop the Dr. Phillips Panthers from celebrating.
The scoreboard hanging on the wall lit up with the final score of 71-49 in favor of Dr. Phillips, which used a big second half to stomp all over Seminole in the FHSAA Class 7A, Region 1 championship game — handing the Panthers their first Final Four berth in a decade.
After being the first to grab hold of the trophy sitting over on the scorer’s table, junior Ernest Udeh took the moment in for a split second, before placing it on the ground in front of his team as they broke out into a dance. After years of wading through the desert for a regional title — which last came in 2011 — this win was one worth celebrating.
“It’s really special to me — on my part — because coming into this with Coach Ben as our coach he asked us what do we want to do, and we told him we wanted to win a state championship,” said Udeh, who racked up 16 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks. “He coaches us everyday in practice to make sure we achieve our goals … and now it’s just up to us if we want to put in the work, put our heads down and stay focused to maintain our goal.”
Going into Friday night’s matchup with Seminole, Panthers head coach Ben Witherspoon knew what he and his team were up against — a talented team that loves the press and forcing turnovers.
Early on the Panthers (22-3) struggled a bit offensively against the Seminoles’ press, and after being down 16-7 with a little over three minutes left in the opening quarter, the Panthers found themselves down only 17-15 at the end of the first quarter thanks to Riley Kugel — who scored six of his 14 points in the quarter.
Then, in the second quarter, the game came to a grinding halt as both teams couldn’t find pay dirt — Dr. Phillips scored only nine points, but the Panthers held the Seminoles to a measly three points in the eight minutes of play.
“We just didn’t execute,” Witherspoon said. “We were prepared, we had a plan and we just didn't do it in the first quarter, and then we didn't finish plays in the second quarter. But we bounced back in the second quarter … our guys don’t panic and we don’t freak out.”
Dealing with the press from the Seminoles (16-8), said Panthers’ Denzel Aberdeen, was a challenge — specifically in the first half.
“We tried to send somebody to the middle and then have two wings running down the floor (in case) somebody catches it down the middle,” said Aberdeen, who led the Panthers with 24 points. “We tried to reverse it quick, but they like to jump up and try to take the ball, so we had to look straight ahead, (do) ball fakes and get it to the middle mainly.”
But just as the first half saw struggling offenses, something clicked for Dr. Phillips right out the gate in the second half, as the Panthers went on an 8-1 run, and then an 11-2 run in the final three-and-a-half minutes to put the Panthers up 51-33 to end the third quarter — a run that was capped off by a thunderous dunk from Udeh. That third quarter — which saw the Panthers outscore the Seminoles 27-13 — would put the Panthers into a comfortable spot, as they cruised on to the 71-49 win.
In the last two seasons under Witherspoon, Dr. Phillips has won the championship in what has become the proverbial “District of Death,” while simultaneously making deep runs into the playoffs — a series of successes the Panthers have not seen since the days of head coach Anthony Long.
Thus far this season the Panthers have overcome the obstacles placed in their way, but now is not the time to be complacent, Witherspoon said. This is what they have been preparing for and it doesn’t get any easier from here.
“Honestly this is what we expected this year — to get to Lakeland,” Witherspoon said. “This isn't our final goal — we’re still not done — so yes we’re happy to be here and happy to have the turn around we’ve had in two years, but until there is a banner up here, we can’t relax.”
There’s no relaxing when it comes to making it this far, and it’s doubly true given the team that will be awaiting Dr. Phillips in the Class 7A semifinals at the RP Funding Center on Friday, Mar. 5, is a powerhouse in Oak Ridge. Game time is set for 12:30 p.m.
The Pioneers (21-2) are the No. 4 ranked team in the state — the Panthers currently sit right behind them at No. 5 — and the two teams met earlier in a regular season matchup that saw Dr. Phillips fall 49-47 in a controversial ending.
“We played them before and we lost by two off a goaltending, so we just have to fix the tiny mistakes that we made in the previous game,” Udeh said. “(We have to) work on it and get better at it.”
The magic number now for Dr. Phillips is two, as a win over Oak Ridge would catapult the Panthers into the state championship the following day — Saturday, Mar. 6.