To be on the court felt like living a fever dream.
As the cacophony of music and yelling fans reverberated off the walls of the RP Funding Center, players wearing the dark and light blue of Dr. Phillips frantically ran in circles as they sought out someone to hug following Dr. Phillips’ historic 54-46 win over Dwyer to claim the school’s first state title.
By the bench area Eathen Williams slowly let himself fall to the hardwood court, before covering his face with both hands in an overwhelming moment of emotion. A few feet away Denzel Aberdeen took Ledger Hatch by the hand — embracing him as tears trickled down his cheek.
“From the beginning of our season we’ve just been talking about going to states,” said Aberdeen, whose game high 27 points helped will the Panthers to victory. “We’ve been working hard and pushing each other every day in practice just for this moment here — just to run around and tackle each other on the court.”
Standing off to the side following the melee of hugs, head coach Ben Witherspoon was taking in a moment of thought. The gold medal draped around his neck had a weight to it — a weight that felt heavier in more than the physical sense.
He was thinking about his team and what they had just accomplished, but he was also thinking about the sacrifice he had to make to be there on that Saturday night.
“(It’s) relief, to be honest,” Witherspoon said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself to be great at this, and this week was special — my grandmother is on her way to transitioning right now, and I told the kids at the beginning of the week, ‘If I ain’t with her, I’m giving you guys everything I got, because she means a lot to me.’ But I had to be here for the kids and we had to get this done, or else I shouldn’t have been here — to be honest.
“It means a ton no matter what’s going on in your life, but (I’m) sacrificing a lot to be here,” he said. “I’m glad we got it done.”
GRIT AND GUTS
Coming off a big win over Oak Ridge in the state semis the day before, the Panthers (23-3) had a ton of momentum going into the Class 7A finals Saturday, March 6, against a Dwyer (14-3) team that was looking for an upset.
That momentum spilled over into the first half for the Panthers, who defensively all but shut out Dwyer — holding them to just nine points in each of the first two quarters. Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, Dr. Phillips used a 12-2 run in the middle of the second quarter — which saw Aberdeen and Riley Kugel each score a chunk of their 11 first-half points — to push the Panthers to a 28-18 lead at the break.
Though the Panthers took the double-digit advantage into the locker room, big man Ernest Udeh was visibly frustrated throughout the first half after only being able to manage a single point.
“When we play most teams they're going to scout us and, of course, I’m going to be a problem for them, so they try and get in my stuff — try to bump me around and push me around, and I just have to man up and take the contact,” Udeh said. “In the first half I was just really frustrated — to keep it simple … so coming into the third quarter I just had to leave it all out on the floor. This is our last game, so whatever happens I have to play my all.”
Udeh would finally get his first basket of the game on a thunderous dunk — in which he was being triple teamed — with 6:13 left in the third quarter, but it was on the boards and on defense where the big man really shined. By the end of the night Udeh finished with 13 rebounds — some of which came during crunch time — while swatting away six shots.
The Panthers continued to hold their double-digit lead — pushing it to as much as 33-21 — before Dwyer began to make its move late in the third quarter and into the fourth. Dwyer chipped away at the Panthers’ lead — finding itself down only 41-40 with 5:08 left to decide a champion.
But then, just as he had done the entire night, Aberdeen stepped up when his team needed him the most. Instead of driving to the basket as he had done most of the night, Aberdeen pulled up from deep and drained his only three of the night to stop the bleeding and put the Panthers up 44-40 with 4:35 left.
“We knew they were going to go on a run,” Aberdeen said. “We knew we weren't going to be the only ones who are going to push the offense, so we just stayed calm, listened to coach, took care of the ball and distributed it.”
“Once they started getting on the run, we knew we had to fight back — we can’t just let them get tempo,” said Kugel, who finished the night with 14 points and five rebounds.
From there on out the Panther capitalized at the charity stripe, and regained their legs on defense to hold Dwyer to just six points in the last four minutes to push Dr. Phillips to victory.
UNIVERSAL OR BUST
As family and fans gathered outside of the arena’s loading dock in the back — waiting to greet their champions — a party was erupting in the Dr. Phillips locker room.
After such a challenging season, and decades of frustration for a program that had been on the precipice of glory so many times — only to have it pulled out from under them — the staff and team were sure to soak in the victory for every ounce it offered.
The next big question is, what happens now? How would the Panthers celebrate? Aberdeen floated an idea that is sure to be one his teammates would also enjoy.
“We should be going to Universal, since it’s right across the street from our school — we’ll make sure and tell our coach that,” Aberdeen said with a laugh.
As the celebrations are sure to continue off the court for some time, many on the team — including the returning junior core of Kugel, Aberdeen and Udeh — are already plotting for domination next year. They want to do this all over again.
“We’ll most definitely be back here next year,” Kugel said. “Mark my words.”