On Saturday, The NY Panthers toppled the D-1 talent-stacked Sean Bell All-Stars in the iS8 semi-finals, giving ammo to the theory that bringing in big guns by the busload doesn't guarantee a championship.
But on Sunday, they proved that even when your own big guns aren't scoring in droves, you can still win a chip if you put forth a well-rounded team effort and do all the right things at all the right times.
"Offensively, we didn't shoot the ball well today", said Panthers Coach Nate Cadogan. "But the small things are what win championships. I told the guys to stay in there, keep moving the ball and try to get stops and rebounds."
The high-scoring Jeffrey Short-J.J. Moore duo combined for 29 points, which is more characteristic of an individual game high for one the gifted scorers. All-American Doron Lamb -who joined the Panthers for Championship Sunday as a secret weapon- only netted 10. But key plays, stops, rebounds and free throws down the stretch from every Panther on the roster were needed to bring them out of a 10 point hole, eventually outlasting defending champion New Heights, 82-80, and taking back the iS8 crown in a rematch from the fall championship.
One would expect nothing less than an intense ebb and flow between the two iS8 rival powerhouses. Despite New Heights keeping the Panthers on a leash throughout much of the game as far as the lead was concerned, the defending champs were never out of harm's way for a Panther attack. Tournament MVP Devon Collier set the tone early for New Heights, dominating around the hoop early and often. Temple-bound Aaron Brown reinforced the effort with aggressive and impressive guard play and New Heights' tough man to man defense was accounted for, but the Panthers had enough to always stay a possession or two behind. Game MVP Ryan Rhoomes provided an inside answer to Collier, and Nemaja Djurisic' s inside-outside play ensured that New Heights' never got too far away. A trey at the first quarter buzzer from Moore brought the Panthers within two, 29-27, and the score throughout second quarter would remain close, albeit through struggles on both sides.
Offensive droughts plagued both units, but poor shot selection from the Panthers in particular prevented a surge. Short began to get going from the field, but it proved to be a false alarm compared to his iS8 onslaughts of late. However, the Panthers got a break via a full court heave from Sterling Gibbs at the halftime buzzer that miraculously went in, making it a 44-40 game in New Heights' favor.
The steady play of Gibbs would eventually pay dividends for the Panthers in the second half, as the Maryland-bound PG used a triad of great defense, high percentage free throw shooting and speed to pick off an inbounds pass for a three point play that gave them a 51-50 lead. But the see-saw action continued with a deep three from Brandon Frazier (12 points), and through a balance of solid play and mistakes, both teams stayed as even as one would expect in a game for all of the marbles. Rhoomes' presence down low remained the anchor for the Panthers throughout the fight, with Lamb, Short and Moore all quiet from the field in the period.
"Sterling played great for us today, he took care of the ball", said Coach Cadogan. "And Ryan deserved the MVP, he was big throughout the whole tournament."
"That's my whole game, just cleaning up down there and getting offensive and defensive rebounds", Rhoomes said. "I just knew I had to play with no fear." But games of this caliber usually start in the fourth quarter, and this one was no different. New Heights came out for the final period bursting with adrenaline and ready to defend their hardware. A detrimental combination of carelessness with the ball and bad fouls from the Panthers gave the defending champs a chance to make a push, and they exploited the opportunity. PG Phil Taylor got New Heights rolling with a huge three pointer to open up a five point cushion, and from there on, each slip on the Panthers' part made them appear more nerve-racked. Their turnovers combined with Jayvaughn Pinkston (13 points) and Brown attacking the hoop and converting at the line eventually gave New Heights a 10 point lead (74-64) -their largest of either team for the game- with 3:35 left to play. But the Panthers sniffed danger at that very moment, and their late sense of urgency kicked in just in time to start a game saving 15-5 run. Whether you cite a huge corner three from Moore, a deadly dose of pressure defense that put New Heights in a chokehold, Short and Gibbs' diligent methods of getting to the line to inch back into the game or key hustle plays and buckets from Lamb, every little detail was key in the Panthers getting in position to strike.
"(The Panthers) had nothing to lose, they played with reckless abandon (late in the game)", said New Heights Head Coach Kimani Young. "I think we played not to lose and had some crucial turnovers, and I think Doron Lamb made every winning play that needed to be made in the last two minutes. That was the difference."
"We have some kids that won't quit, they're fighters", said Coach Cadogan. "We knew we'd need a (New Heights) turnover or some missed free throws, then we could hit a shot and get back the lead."
Lamb's late spark brought the Panthers within a deuce, 79-77, but with 30 seconds left to play, Short muscled in a hoop for an eventual three point play that put the Panthers out front, 80-79. It wasn't an NBA range three or a flashy drive, but in accordance with the rest of the "little" things in the game, it served a huge purpose and New Heights never led again. Equally huge were the pressure that forced Taylor out of bounds, the block on a full steam Pinkston bull-charging to the hoop, the smart wrap up foul from Gibbs to prevent a three, some key substitutions or a clutch pair of free throws from Rhoomes that effectively iced the game.
"Yesterday I was either 1-1 or 0-2 from the line, and I was upset with that", said Rhoomes, who was seen warming up an hour before game time with 10 foot jumpers and free throws. "I came (to iS8) a little early to work on it, and when I got to the line I felt comfortable."
Taylor and Brown both had chances to tie the game or win it with time running out, but the Panthers held serve to take it all. And Rhoomes (who also made IS8 second team) knew that as long as his team didn't panic, they were never out of the running.
"The key was not losing our head, because the defense was there all season", he said. "We just had to calm down and stop chucking shots up, get good shots. It's a great feeling for me, because all the years I've been in IS8 I never won anything, no MVP, no nothing. This year I stepped everything up, and it's just a great experience for me."
Rhoomes' 12 points, presence in the paint and key plays earned him MVP, while Sterling Gibbs' 18 points was good for the Panthers' team high. Jeff Short added 15 points and JJ Moore, 14. Aaron Brown earned the sportsmanship award for New Heights with a game high 24 points. Devon Collier added 14.
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