Jan 22, 2014
Panther Creek's shot began to fall at just the right time Wednesday evening.
Facing an 11-point deficit late in the third quarter on the road against Middle Creek (8-9, 3-4), the Catamounts closed out the game on a 24-10 run, increasing their defensive pressure and finding easy offensive opportunities en route to a 49-46 win over the Mustangs.
"We picked up our intensity on defense and tried to create offense out of our defense," said Panther Creek head coach L.J. Hepp. "I don't know how many times we turned them over in the last ten minutes of the game, but it was a bunch. That biggest difference was our effort defensively."
Middle Creek began the second half on a 11-5 scoring run as the Mustangs began to build momentum and run away with the game. The contest quickly turned around when Catamount point guard Juan Munoz connected on two three-point attempts late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, and Panther Creek (14-3, 6-1) was down just two points.
"I thought we came out really flat," Hepp said. "I think it's just the reality of having a great start to the year and the reality of losing to Apex and Northern in the last seven days. We're kind of figuring out where we are and who we are, and tonight we just found a way."
Both teams traded baskets through the early stages of the fourth quarter, but Panther Creek finally drew even midway through the period when Gaqwez Hudson made a deep shot of his own.
Munoz and Middle Creek forward Fred Iruafemi then traded single free throws to keep the score tied, but Panther Creek finally took the lead when Elijah Fairfax stole the ball from Middle Creek's Jared Collins immediately following an inbound pass and turned the takeaway into an easy score.
"We just freaked out when they started pressuring us," said Middle Creek head coach David Kushner. "I guess we haven't been in that many close games and you have to learn how to win."
On the next Catamount possession, senior Nubian Spann was fouled and made both free throws to give Panther Creek a four-point lead.
"Last time I came here I had free throws that I missed, but I just wanted to hit them to make sure we were up," Spann said. "As a senior--as a leader--I want to make sure I hit those for my coach and for my team."
In desperation, Middle Creek's Shammond Hicks made a late three-pointer to pull within a point. After Hudson made two foul shots at the other end, the Mustangs had one last chance--down by three points--with ten seconds left on the clock. A final shot attempt from Justin Tankelewicz fell short, bouncing off the front of the rim at the buzzer.
"We were setting a double screen for Tank trying to get him a three," said Kushner. "Probably an inch higher and maybe it swishes."
While the game closed in dramatic fashion, it opened as a head-scratcher for both teams as they struggled greatly to score from the field. Middle Creek led 10-8 after the first quarter.
Offensive woes continues for both the Mustangs and the Catamounts in the second quarter. Middle Creek--a team that makes its living off shooting from deep--was held to just two makes from beyond the arc in the first half. At halftime, no team had a scorer with more than five points.
"I was very surprised," said Munoz. "I didn't expect us to come out flat like that, but during halftime we got a little inspiration and we came out ready to play."
Munoz sparked his team by scoring 12 of his game-high 14 points in the second half to make the difference. Hudson finished with 11 points while Spann scored eight and Fairfax had six.
Iruafemi led Middle Creek with 11 points, Collins scored ten and Hicks scored nine.
Panther Creek entered the game ranked sixth in the latest HighSchoolOT.com Triangle Top 12 poll, and the win brings them to 6-1 in the 4-A Southwest Wake Athletic Conference, standing alone in second place and trailing undefeated Apex.
Defeating the Mustangs earlier in the year, this season marks the first time a Panther Creek boys' basketball team has swept a Middle Creek team in the regular season since the 2008-09 basketball season.
"This group has worked hard and has had some firsts," Hepp said. "It's a special group and it's a group we feel has a chance to be a championship team."
Now having played four games in the last seven days, Panther Creek will next take the floor Friday night at Athens Drive. Middle Creek will host the Apex Cougars on Friday.
Follow Zach Mayo on Twitter at @ZachMayoHSOT