The hotly contested matchup between the Panthers and Blue Darters saw multiple lead changes late, before Dr. Phillips was able to hold on for the victory.
When it came down to crunch time, Dr. Phillips found the answers it needed to fight off Apopka late in the Panthers’ 58-56 victory over the Blue Darters in the Class 7A, District 3 boys basketball semifinal Wednesday, Feb. 12.
Going into the final quarter of the second semifinal, the Panthers (18-7) and Blue Darters (18-9) sat knotted up at 41-41 and continued to throw haymakers at one another. In the last three minutes alone the teams exchanged leads on four separate occasions.
The game was still up in the air with 4.3 seconds left when the Panthers — who were up 58-55 — fouled Apopka’s John Latimer, who went to the line for a pair of free throws. Latimer hit his first shot to make it 58-56, before intentionally missing the second shot, which was hauled in by Panthers junior forward Ledger Hatch.
It was a challenging game for Dr. Phillips, but Panthers Head Coach Ben Witherspoon knew that it would be, as his side had lost to Apopka at the halfway point of the season.
“We knew coming in that it would be tough — Apopka is a great team, they’re just awesome defensively,” Witherspoon said. “We knew if we were going to win the game, we were going to have to be near perfect for 32 minutes. We weren't perfect tonight, but we executed when it mattered and guys got stops late in the game — it was just a gutsy, gutsy effort by our guys.”
Much like Ocoee did in the first semifinal, Dr. Phillips came out with complete efficiency in every aspect of the game.
The Panthers jumped out to a 9-0 run thanks to three-straight shots from deep, before the Blue Darters finally broke the streak about three minutes into the game. By the end of the first quarter the Panthers had put on a clinic and led 21-10.
“We knew if we were going to win the game, we were going to have to be near perfect for 32 minutes. We weren't perfect tonight, but we executed when it mattered and guys got stops late in the game — it was just a gutsy, gutsy effort by our guys.”
— Ben Witherspoon, Dr. Phillips head coach
In the second quarter, however, it was a totally different ball game as the Panthers managed to score only two points, while being outscored 12-2 — going into the half up only 23-22.
“It was on me — I didn't have a good second quarter, so we didn't have a good second quarter,” Witherspoon said. “We had a strategy coming in and I got away from that in the second quarter, then in the third and fourth quarter we got back to it and that’s why we found success in the second half.”
The Blue Darters came out in the third quarter and immediately took their first lead less than a minute into the half. The Panthers quickly responded two minutes later, retaking the lead at 32-31 with 3:54 left in the third behind the work of Denzel Aberdeen — who scored 12 of his game high 26 points in the quarter.
Dr. Phillips continued to cling to its narrow lead — pushing it to 46-41 at one point — before Latimer was fouled on a three by Aberdeen. Latimer would hit all three to tie the game up at 49-49 with 3:40 left in the game.
Apopka would retake the lead on a shot from Latimer to make it 51-49 Blue Darters with 2:45 left to go, but a big-time three from Abdoulaye Thiam put the Panthers back on top at 52-51 with 1:54 left. The bucket would be Thiam's last of the night, as he would finish with 15 points.
Aberdeen continued to be the man of the hour for the Panthers, as he picked up six of his 26 points — going 4-for-4 at the charity stripe, and scoring a basket — in the last 1:14 to help seal up the win.
Dr. Phillips won’t have much time to rest now, as the Panthers take Ocoee (20-6) in the district final Friday, Feb. 14, at Apopka High School. The Panthers are 0-2 against the Knights this season, but Dr. Phillips isn't concerned, Witherspoon said.
“We’re a growth mindset program — we’re solely focused on our own improvement every single day,” Witherspoon said. “We’ve gotten better since the last time we played them.”