In Class 7A, District 3 — also known as the "District of Death" — nothing is ever a given. Dr. Phillips almost learned this the hard way as they held on in overtime to beat Olympia 51-43 to move the Panthers into first place in the district.
After leading for almost the entirety of the game, Dr. Phillips (15-3, 4-1) saw its 25-12 lead coming out of the first half dwindle drastically as Olympia rallied late in the fourth quarter. The Titans (16-5, 5-2) chipped away at the Panthers in the last two minutes of the game with Tyeree Bryan and Jacari White knocking down back-to-back shots from deep, before Edgerrin “Jizzle” James hit two clutch free throws with two seconds left to knot the game up at 41-41 — sending the game to overtime.
At one point during regulation the Panthers had been up by as many as 13 points, and defensively had shut the Titans out from getting any kind of rhythm going on offense. As the tide began to turn and Olympia managed to force overtime, there's always that worry that the shift of momentum will continue, said Panthers head coach Ben Witherspoon.
"(I'm) super proud of my guys for just staying together," Witherspoon said. "Being up like that, and a team comes back, sometimes the momentum going in their favor can kill your spirit. Our guys just recomposed. I brought them over, took a deep breath — it was quiet for a second — and just told them, 'Look, we've been up the whole game, we just have to win five more minutes.'"
The Panthers wouldn't just win the next five minutes, they'd dominate — on both sides of the ball.
In overtime Dr. Phillips would outscore the Titans 10-2, with six of those points coming from Riley Kugel who finished the night with a team high of 18 points. It was also Kugel who sent the Panthers off on a high note with a big windmill dunk to put a dramatic emphasis on a huge win for Dr. Phillips.
To add onto Kugel's solid night, teammates Ernest Udeh Jr. and Denzel Aberdeen also played important roles in the win for Dr. Phillips, with Udeh picking up a double-double of 13 points and 13 rebounds, while Aberdeen recorded 15 points and three steals.
"Teams are going to key on Denzel and we know that, and Denzel knows that, so he did a good job of finding his teammates tonight and just taking care of the ball," Witherspoon said. "Ernest did a great job — he was dominant and not a lot of teams have an answer for him — and then Riley stepped up big time, and was a killer tonight and we needed it."
For the Titans, Bryan led the way with 15 points, while James recorded 10 points in a loss that snapped Olympia's seven-game win streak. The loss was also the eighth-straight defeat at the hands of Dr. Phillips — a streak that dates back to 2016.
Normally, beating your rival would be the best part of a game like this, but in this case it was simply a cherry on the top as the win for Dr. Phillips helped push the Panthers to 4-1 in district play and into first place ahead of the Titans. Unlike previous years, however, district seeding will be determined by the Florida High School Athletic Association's power ratings, which right now has Dr. Phillips ahead of Olympia.
"We hope that that gives us the No. 1 seed in the district tournament," Witherspoon said. "That No. 1 seed gets a bye, so we want that — that's an important thing to us. We have an incredibly hard district, so we'd much rather play two games than three games in our district."
The Panthers will now take on Impact Christian (Jacksonville) today — Saturday, Jan. 30 — at 4:30 in “The Invitational” at Orlando Christian Prep, while Olympia will host Edgewater Tuesday, Feb. 2.
Nate Marrero contributed to this story