It was a sinking feeling as the final buzzer sounded for Dr. Phillips as the Panthers watched Columbus celebrate its first state championship in its history.
Riley Kugel bent over his knees as all the emotions of the game came flooding out of him. A couple of teammates surrounded him. Most of the other guys stood shocked as Columbus celebrated on the other side of the court. Head coach Ben Witherspoon also seemed like he had a hard time computing what had happened.
Perhaps no bigger image of what the team was feeling came from sophomore forward Jordan Tillery. He sat slumped against the padding of the basket.
Indeed, the Panthers had come far, but the silver medals weren’t their goal. But, the result shouldn’t mar a season full of grit, determination and talent.
In the state final Saturday, March 5, the Panthers were down eight in the final minute of play. However, they clawed their way back to within one. And with one second left, they had a chance.
With their last gasp, the Panthers got the ball to Denzel Aberdeen, who hoisted the ball up to the basket. But it bounced cruelly off the rim.
From the start, DP was overwhelmed by Columbus’ attack, led by the Boozer brothers, Cameron and Cayden, sons of former NBA player Carlos Boozer. That attack, plus some questionable no-calls and defensive breakdowns, was a big reason why the Panthers struggled to find their rhythm on offense.
“We didn’t play well offensively throughout the game,” Witherspoon said. “We struggled to make plays and make shots. Defensively, we weren’t disciplined enough in points. We were pressing some — but not the way we needed to — and doing things we talked about not doing. We weren’t disciplined when we needed to be.”
Aberdeen and fellow senior Kugel both led the team with 17 points, with the other member of their Big 3, Ernest Udeh Jr., adding six.
Columbus found its stride early in the game, with the Boozer brothers leading the way to a 13-9 lead after the first quarter. DP found itself in territory it had not seen since the regional final against Windermere. Even then, it didn’t feel quite like this.
Having taken that punch to the mouth, the team regrouped in the second quarter and kept the game close by making defensive plays and getting turnovers when they needed to. DP took the second quarter, outscoring the Explorers 8-6 on the backs of Kugel and Aberdeen.
Going into halftime, there was still a chance for them to win. Witherspoon believed his team was going to win the game at the end.
“I told them we were going to win,” he said. “I still believed we were going to win the game.”
That belief got things started on a good note in the third quarter as Jackson Slater scored on a layup, marking the first points for the Panthers not scored by Kugel, Aberdeen or Udeh. The energy seemed to pick up after that, but Columbus answered back with a run of its own, putting itself back up 32-27 at the end of the third.
Just as it seemed like the game was over with one minute to go and Columbus up 44-36, the momentum swung toward DP. After Columbus missed a free throw, two quick threes from Kugel and Aberdeen tied the game.
With overtime looking likely by the second, a reach-in call on Dr. Phillips gave Columbus a chance to take the lead. The Columbus player made one free throw, but with no timeouts and only a second left, it was going to take one big shot to give DP the win.
Throughout the night, it seemed as though Columbus was getting the benefit of more foul calls than the Panthers were. One play involved Aberdeen on the receiving end of contact that looked more than a little excessive, but no call was made. Dr. Phillips had eight fouls called on them the whole game compared to only four for Columbus.
With one second left, Aberdeen took the shot to give the Panthers a miracle win.
Even with the wounds of the loss still raw, Witherspoon said he could not be more proud of what the team has built over his three years.
“It’s been great, taking over for a 12-15 team, winning the first district championship in school history, then winning the first state championship in school history,” Witherspoon said. “With all the things we’ve dealt with this year, how hard our schedule was, it’s harder to do it a second time. To be right there is not the ultimate accomplishment, but a great accomplishment.”
Aberdeen, Kugel and Udeh now will move on to the next level with all three looking to play top-tier Division I basketball next year. Aberdeen and Kugel will stay in the SEC at Florida and Mississippi State respectively, while Udeh will be going to Kansas.
With those three soon to be out of the picture, Witherspoon is anxious to get back and develop the next great group. Tillery is, as of now, DP’s likely centerpiece, with Cameron Miles being another key returner next season.