- March 5, 2021
A close, hard-fought game between Dr. Phillips and Windermere Monday, Jan. 17 — the final of the OCPS Metro West tournament — came down to two free throws.
Panthers senior Riley Kugel stepped up to the line; that was all DP coach Ben Witherspoon needed to see. Confident Kugel was going to sink both free throws, he told the bench that the game was over.
“Riley always has a calm demeanor; he never gets too high or too low at any point,” Witherspoon said. “When he got fouled, we weren’t worried. We’ve had guys step up and make game-winning free throws over and over the past couple weeks, so we were confident.”
Surely enough, Kugel displayed composure in that pressure-filled moment.
“I didn’t feel nervous at all,” he said. “I felt calm, because all I had to do was make two free throws. I knew I was going to make at least one, but I told myself that I had to hit both of them.”
He did just that and gave DP a 38-37 win over Windermere in a game between two of the area’s strongest teams.
From the start, both teams wanted to push the pace and create opportunities. However, both defenses were more than up to the challenge — contesting shots and making sure there were no second chance opportunities on either side of the court.
Windermere led after the first quarter 10-7. Sean Stewart was a big part of that lead, making plays on defense along with a couple baskets.
DP pushed back in the second, as Kugel, along with Jordan Tillery, helped give the team a narrow 18-17 lead going into halftime.
The third proved to be just as tight; both teams came out of the break looking to gain an edge on the other. There was a point of controversy when the referee ruled Stewart had stepped out of bounds after a steal, which Windermere coach Mark Griseck tried to argue was not out of bounds.
Heading into the final frame, DP was looking for someone to light a spark to carry them to possible victory.
Enter Jackson Slater.
Slater scored six straight points, including three consecutive free throws, to push the Panther lead to 36-29 in the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“We can’t do what we do without Jackson Slater,” Witherspoon said. “Having him as another ball-handler, another decision-maker, a guy (who) knock down open threes. He’s also the ultimate teammate; he’s unselfish. He’s everything you want in a college basketball player. He’s going to help somebody win conference championships one day.”
Slater ended the game with eight points.
While Slater started off the fourth quarter, it was Kugel who ended it. After Windermere crawled back to take a one-point lead with fewer than 10 seconds to go after a dunk by Stewart, DP had one last chance to win the game.
Kugel took a pass from Slater and drove down the lane, going up for a jump shot. At first, it seemed the shot had been blocked, and Windermere would win.
But the referee called a foul, putting Kugel at the line.
Kugel led the Panthers with 15 points; Tillery finished the game with eight points.
Kugel’s other two partners, Denzel Aberdeen and Ernest Udeh Jr., were held in check by Windermere. Udeh ended the game with four points, while Aberdeen was held off the scoreboard entirely.
For Windermere, Stewart and guard Jalen DeBose finished the game with 11 points each, while Stewart made several key defensive plays to keep the Wolverines in the game. The next highest scorer for the Wolverines was Chalier Torres, who had eight points.
With districts and the state playoffs upcoming, Witherspoon said the focus is on maintaining the course.
“Windermere’s a great team, one of the best in the state — no question,” he said. “They can compete with anybody any day, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
DP next plays host to Potter’s House Christian High School (Jacksonville) Jan. 21. The Panthers and the Wolverines will meet again Feb. 1 at Windermere High School in DP’s regular-season finale.