Panthers shock Pirates in overtime, then lose to Prescott in regional final
The heart-pounding charge in the final month of the season by the St. Croix Central boys basketball team was capped when they upset number one seed Grantsburg in a wild overtime game last Thursday, 68-67.
By beating Grantsburg, the Panthers moved into Saturday's regional championship game against Prescott. The Panthers led in Saturday's game at halftime, 22-19. Prescott started the second half with a huge energy boost and the Panthers could not match it. Prescott scored the first 10 points of the second half. Central was never able to stem Prescott's momentum, with the Cardinals winning the regional title game, 55-50.
Central finishes the season with an 11-12 record. That's quite an improvement, considering the Panthers' record stood at 4-11 a month ago.
Panther coach Mike Fern said Central and Prescott had similar strategies for the game. Both teams were planning to build a lead in the second half, then hold the ball for long periods of time to milk the clock. Prescott's burst at the start of the second half gave the Cards the freedom to be patient in the fourth quarter.
That also forced the Panthers to go on the attack defensively, a situation that isn't a strength for the Panthers.
While Prescott lit up the scoreboard in the third quarter, the Panthers went ice cold. Prescott outscored Central 18-5 in the third quarter, with the Panthers making 1-14 shots from the field in the quarter.
Kyle Cress led the Panthers with 15 points in Saturday's game, scoring 10 of them in the fourth quarter as the Panthers tried to mount a comeback. After trailing by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter, the Panthers were able to get the margin down to five in the final seconds of the game.
"The kids will remember this game forever," Coach Fern said after the Panthers' thrilling 68-67 overtime win at Grantsburg last Thursday.
Grantsburg came into the game with an 18-3 record.
The overtime was a thrill ride for the fans. Grantsburg scored first and continued to lead for much of the period. Grantsburg hit one of two free throws late in the overtime to go ahead 66-64. The Panthers called a timeout with 12 seconds out to set up a final shot. The play worked just as diagramed, with Cress hitting a three-pointer with six seconds left to put the Panthers ahead 67-66.
Grantsburg still had time to hurry the ball up the court. Instead of trying a close-range shot, the Pirates tried a three-pointer. The shot bounced off the back of the rim as the final clock sounded, setting off a jubilant celebration among the Panther players and fans.
Fern said he had no doubts about having Cress take the final shot.
"He's matured a lot, he's a lot stronger now," Fern said. "He's playing under control. They are all more under control now."
Cress finished the game with 18 points, including five in the overtime. Brian Aldworth scored 14 points. His influence was strong early in the game, as he hit three three-point shots in the first quarter. Luke Brown finished with 11 points.
Brown also led the Panthers with eight assists and five steals in the win. Cody Olson led the Panthers with seven rebounds.
The Panthers opened the WIAA Division 3 playoffs last Tuesday with a 51-32 win over Webster.
This was a game where the Panthers controlled all the action with their defense. The outcome was decided in the second quarter, when Central outscored Webster 19-5. That gave Central a 29-10 lead at halftime.
Brad Walen and Cress combined for 15 of Central's points in the pivotal second quarter. Cress led the Panthers with 12 points in the game and Walen scored 10 points.