When Dr. Phillips needed guys to step up in crunch time, they did just that — which, in turn, pushed the Panthers to a big 56-44 win over No. 1-ranked Oak Ridge in the FHSAA Class 7A semifinals Friday, March 5.
After Oak Ridge (23-3) pulled to within 43-42 — thanks to a steal-happy defense and multiple fouls by DP — with a little over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Panthers (23-3) proceeded to go on an 11-0 run over the next four minutes to go up 54-42. During that span the Pioneers missed 11 shots in-a-row, which was mostly due to a Panthers defense that made every shot a difficult one.
“We took care of the ball — we got stops and took care of the ball — and we knew the pressure was coming,” said DP head coach Ben Witherspoon. “We knew it was going to be the time where they try to make their run and pick up the pressure and trap, and we knew we had to get stops. Then we got layups — that was the other thing — and we attacked the basket.”
Inside the confines of the RP Funding Center in Lakeland, the Panthers set the tone early, as right off the tip junior guard Riley Kugel found open space and dashed down the baseline — soaring into the air for a dunk only a few seconds in.
From there it was back and forth throughout the first half, with both teams staying within a point or two of one another, before the Pioneers went into the break up 29-28. Junior guard Denzel Aberdeen led all Panthers in scoring in the first half — picking up seven of his team-high 12 points.
“At halftime we come into the locker room — the game’s not over; the game’s never over at halftime,” said junior center Ernest Udeh, who recorded seven points, 12 rebounds and five-blocked shots. “We come into the half, no matter what the score, and we have to keep our heads up, because … anything can happen. Even in the one-minute stretch when we were up by 10, they could have come back.”
The third quarter continued the back-and-forth of the first half — with Dr. Phillips holding a 38-37 lead to end the quarter — but then things broke open for the Panthers in fourth.
After going up 43-37 on a shot from from Kugel, the Pioneers capitalized on three-straight trips to the charity stripe — going 5-for-6 to bring the game to within 43-42 with a little over five minutes remaining. As things seemingly got dicey for the Panthers, Kugel hit a two, which helped start off the Panthers’ game-sealing 11-0 run.
“With one minute left in the game I just knew they were going to come back pressing us as hard as they can — they knew their season was on the line,” said Kugel, who picked up seven points and seven rebounds. “They were about to come back two times harder … I just knew we had to get a bucket then and there.”
Bench play for the Panthers also proved big in Friday night’s game, as senior Eathen Williams, ninth-grader Jordan Tillery and junior Mason Sheffield went a combined 7-for-7 from the field. Tillery finished with seven points, while Williams and Sheffield finished with five points and four points respectively.
Though beating Oak Ridge — especially after losing to the Pioneers in controversial fashion on a goaltending call during their regular-season matchup — is a big deal, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Tomorrow night — at 8 p.m. — the Panthers play in their first state title since 2011 against Dwyer (14-3), and will seek to finally win that ever elusive state championship.
“It’s just come in the morning, be ready and be focused for tomorrow, because we weren't focused on this game — we were focused on the state championship,” Aberdeen said. “So just get ready, prepare and be ready.”