Runner-up Panthers to host Harris County

A+Panther+guard+examines+the+court+during+the+region+championship+game.+After+not+making+the+state+playoffs+a+year+ago%2C+the+Panthers+are+ready+to+host+Harris+County+in+the+first+round+of+statewide+competition.

Shelby Foster

A Panther guard examines the court during the region championship game. After not making the state playoffs a year ago, the Panthers are ready to host Harris County in the first round of statewide competition.

Rilee Stapleton, Staff Writer

For the first time in four years, the Panthers will be hosting a state playoff game. However, the playoff game follows the Region 3-AAAAA tournament that took place in the Panther Pit. In that tournament, the Panthers started as the number two seed, and finished in second place. After defeating Morrow and Griffin, the Panthers faced region powerhouse Fayette County, and fell, 62-60, in overtime.

It hurts. There’s some tears coming down back there [in the locker room].”

— coach Brandon Hutchins

“It hurts. There’s some tears coming down back there [in the locker room],” varsity boys’ basketball coach Brandon Hutchins said. “But I told them to remember, we’ll be back.”

The first round saw the 15-9 Panthers host the 7-19 Morrow Mustangs. In the two meetings prior to the postseason matchup, Starr’s Mill handled business against the Mustangs. After narrowly pulling out a 71-64 win at home, the Panthers traveled to Morrow and thwarted the Mustangs 69-43.

Despite Starr’s Mill being the No. 2 seed, and the Mustangs being the No. 7 seed, the game was relatively close. The Mustangs controlled the lead for a large portion of the game, but the Panthers pulled away in the fourth quarter to seal a 58-49 victory. The win set the Panthers up to play the No. 6 seed Griffin Bears, who upset the No. 3 seed McIntosh Chiefs in the first round, 56-54.

“I don’t think that’s much of an upset,” Hutchins said. “Griffin’s record is deceiving, they were better in the second half of the season.”

The Griffin Bears entered the Panther Pit for round two of the region tournament with a 6-19 record, but they beat Starr’s Mill in both of their regular season contests. Before the postseason, the Panthers had an 8-1 home record, with the only loss coming to the Bears. Griffin simply outplayed the Panthers in their 77-64 win on Jan 14. Three weeks later, the Bears edged out a 53-50 win over the Panthers in Griffin.

Shelby Foster
A Panther player is being guarded by a Tiger defender at the top of the key. The game was tightly contested and went into overtime, where a Panther player missed a potential game winning shot.

However, the Panthers were determined to meet Fayette County in the region championship. Griffin fell behind early, as Starr’s Mill opened the game with a 12-0 run. Once the Panthers built their double digit lead, they didn’t look back. The blowout lasted through all four quarters, and the Panthers cruised to a 68-40 win over the Bears.

“We know we can trust each other to score and play defense,” junior point guard and all-time leading scorer at Starr’s Mill Zach Pina said. “That really helps tremendously.”

Scoring and defending are key in every game, especially when playing some of the best talent. Fayette County started the season as one of the top teams in the state, and they proved it as they built up their 20-7 record, including an 18-point win over Starr’s Mill on Jan 10. For the Tigers, an undefeated region record seemed very possible, that is, until they stepped onto floor inside in the Panther Pit for the first time of the season. The Panthers showed they could compete with anyone as they outplayed Fayette County for the entirety of their 10-point victory. These two matchups built up the most important game of the year for each team. The region championship.

The Panthers once again gained an early lead, but it didn’t last too long, as the teams went back and forth and kept the score close. The Panthers led at the end of the first three quarters and held a 44-42 lead going into the final quarter. Both teams traded baskets throughout the quarter, and Fayette County was the last to strike with a game-tying layup as the buzzer sounded. In overtime, the Tigers outscored the Panthers 6-4 to take home the region championship.

Aelise Gagliano
A Panther player drives through a Morrow defender on her way to the basket. The girls were unable to make the state playoffs and finished 12-13, a step down from last season’s 15-10 record.

“I’m extremely proud of them,” Hutchins said. “We competed with them and had a chance to win it. I can’t ask for much more.”

On the girls’ side, the Lady Panthers also faced Morrow in the first round, but they weren’t able to advance in the tournament. After beating Morrow twice in the regular season, the Mustangs were too much for the young, inexperienced Panthers. Morrow won a defensive matchup by the score of 39-38, and punched their ticket to the next round in the region tournament. The Mustangs then matched up with the Griffin Lady Bears, but fell to the eventual region champions 78-46. Griffin beat McIntosh 61-34 in the region championship game, and they take a 25-1 record into the state playoffs.

Despite the girls’ season being over, the boys host Harris County in the first round of the state playoffs. The Tigers are 9-17, but boast a 6-2 region record. In just the second ever state playoff game in the Panther Pit, Starr’s Mill looks forward to starting their journey to the championship game.