It might not have been the way they drew it up, but it might have been the thing they needed. The Middle Park Panthers (12-10, 8-4) boys basketball team came from behind and held off the Bennett Tigers (15-7, 9-3) in Saturday’s Frontier League Consolation Final at Sheridan High School. Middle Park now advances to the first round of the 3A State Championships Friday, March 4 in Parachute.
Middle Park defeated Bennett earlier in the season with a convincing 90-64 home victory, and early in Saturday’s game Bennett seemed poised to avenge that loss. The Tigers held off elimination just days before with a last-second, 60- foot desperation shot by Jesse Rodriguez against Arrupe. Bennett clearly used that momentum to jump on the Panthers, connecting on a series of early threes and jumping out to a 40-16 first half lead.
“Bennett is not used to losing to Middle Park,” says Panther coach Dustin Morrow. “Coming off of that amazing victory over Arrupe, we knew they would come out with a lot of energy and a chip on their shoulder.”
Down by 24 with about three minutes left in the second quarter, the Panthers went on a little bit of a run, and at halftime they had cut the deficit to 47-31.
“I really think those last three minutes won the game for us,” says MPHS assistant Jeff Ehlert. “It put us in a familiar position.”
Ironically, the Panthers held a 46-31 lead at halftime against Sheridan just a few weeks before. It was Sheridan that staged a second half comeback and won by ten.
“There wasn’t a whole lot we needed to change,” says Morrow. “In the first quarter they couldn’t miss, and we couldn’t get anything to fall. I reminded the guys that we had been on the other side of this thing in this exact same building. I said to just play the way we play – to dare greatly, to risk everything. Don’t look at the scoreboard. Look inside yourself and worry only about your brothers in the arena.”
The Panthers responded with a second-half rally, outscoring Bennett 42- 22 and claiming a 73-69 victory.
Middle Park took its first lead with 29 seconds left in the game on a reverse lay-up by Douglas Dean. Dean finished with a career-high 18 points. Brad Lutz led all scorers with 26 points and collected 18 rebounds – his 20th doubledouble of the season. Jordan Ehlert also had 18 points. Chance Martin and Ryan Jones contributed key minutes, and Jones collected 10 rebounds.
But, Dean was the star of the game. Bennett’s three-point specialist Joseph Goodnight connected for 17 first half points. Dean’s smothering defense held the Bennett star to only one point in the second half, a late free-throw on an intentional foul.
“It’s the type of lights-out defense Doug has played all year,” says Morrow. “He has no fear. He will step-in and take a charge, and he’s quick enough and athletic enough to take any opponent out of the game. He’s the heart and soul of our team.”
For Morrow, the win was a breakthrough.
“We have made something of a habit of having a bad quarter or two,” says Morrow. “We have had some good comebacks, but this was clearly the biggest deficit and the best opponent.
“The way we play, the pace we play at – we know that teams will be able to hang with us for a quarter, maybe a half,” says Morrow. “But, if they aren’t in the gym training every day like we do, sooner or later they are going to break. When they break, when they hit the wall, that’s when things are just getting started for us.”
Middle Park will play Colorado Springs St. Mary’s (13-9, 9-3) at Grand Valley High School in Parachute on Friday, March 4 at 7pm. The winner will advance to the Sweet Sixteen and play the Grand Valley- Frontier Academy winner for a birth in the Great Eight.
Middle Park Girls Claim Third Place in Frontier League Tournament
Reilly Weimer poured in ten points and Holly Tehan added another eight, and the Middle Park Panthers (15-5, 11-1) held off The Pinnacle (13-9, 8-4) to claim third place at the Frontier League Tournament in Sheridan last Saturday. Middle Park bounced back after a disappointing loss to The Academy in last Thursday’s semifinal. Led by Weimer and Tehan, the Panthers pulled out the defensive struggle, 33-26. In the victory, the Panther defense held their opponent under 30 points for the tenth time this season. The Panthers are 10-0 in those games.
Middle Park will play La Junta (17- 5, 8-2) in the first round of the 3A State Championships on Friday, March 4 at 2pm in Sterling. The winner will move on to the round of sixteen and face either Sterling or Platte Canyon.
“This is only the second time in ten years that our boys and girls basketball teams will finish with winning records, and it’s the first time since 2013 that both programs will go to the state tournament,” says Middle Park Athletic Director Adam Bright.
A Panther victory on Friday would set-up an interesting match-up, either way. The Sterling girls eliminated Middle Park from the state volleyball tournament earlier in the year. Middle Park and Platte Canyon have already played once this year, Middle Park winning convincingly 57-14.
La Junta won the Consolation Final of the Tri-Peaks League to advance to the state playoffs. The Tigers are led by Lauren Addington and Alyssa Lovato, a pair of dangerous three-point shooters who combine for more than 25 points per game. The games this weekend are just another example of the culture change occurring in Middle Park Athletics.
“We built on the success of volleyball and football earlier this year by sending skiing, wrestling, and now basketball to State,” Bright says. “This will go down as one of the best years in Panther athletic history, and there is good reason to believe this is just the beginning.”