It was halftime at the iS8/Nike Championship game, and for the Panthers, this was near Déjà vu. They dominated the New Heights Seniors for a majority of the first half, before New Heights made a second quarter run and closed the gap to ten points at the half, 47-37.
24 hours earlier, the script for the Panthers' semi-final clash against Boys & Girls wasn't much different. Even the halftime scores were near identical, as they were on top, 49-39 at the midway point. But second halves are where championship trophies are earned and legends are made or where teams unravel, and New Heights' achieved the former via an uphill battle that lasted just short of 30 minutes. In fact, New Heights only led for 1:40 of the game, but their resilience, lunch pail toughness and balance were too much for an offensively loaded Panthers team that lost steam down the stretch. New Heights -after bowing out in the semis numerous times in recent years- snuck up and snatched the title from its previous owner, 87-83, in a wild barn burner pedigree of a championship game not seen in quite some time at iS8.
"This was a tough loss for us, we blew it down the stretch", said Panthers Assistant Coach Hassan Bilal. "But this was still a great game. It was fun to watch."
Would the Panthers have enough firepower to dismember a tough New Heights squad with unrivaled team chemistry and add them to a long list of blowout victims?
That was the burning question early on, and the Panthers' penchant for steamrolling teams was front and center out of the gate. Much like the game against Boys & Girls, the open court whirling dervish act of Russ Smith and the hot hand of PG Sterling Gibbs set the Panthers out on an 11-0 lead, while New Heights conversely came out flat. The Panthers' zone frustrated New Heights and caused them to cough up the ball seven times in the first quarter. When it came to shooting the ball, they fared no better. Jayvaughn Pinkston got them in the scoring column with a three and David Coley got a pair of shots to fall, but their overall 4-11 shooting in the quarter wasn't enough. 6'6 swingman JJ Moore joined the fray when he began to heat up at the end of the period. His efforts joined those of Smith and Gibbs to form the high scoring Panthers trio that gave teams trouble all season long. A kick out pass from Smith set Moore up for his second three of the game, and when New Heights failed to take heed to commissioner Pete Edwards' warning of "somebody better put a hand up", Moore made them pay with another trey. The Panthers led by as many as 16 points in the quarter, but a Brandon Frazier three at the buzzer brought it back to thirteen, 29-16.
New Heights took brief advantage of a temporarily subdued Panthers offense early in the second period, and when PG Corey Edwards canned a pair of free throws, New Heights were back within six, 31-25. But with the New Heights front court giving Smith problems attacking the rack and Moore cooling off, Reynaldo Walters took the scoring load on his shoulders by attacking the hoop and knocking down the mid-range jumper. It wouldn't be long before the Panthers took their biggest lead of the game at seventeen, 47-30, and New Heights were again stuck in the mud. With the exception of Pinkston, their front court struggled to make lay-ups and put backs. Their 4-10 showing from the charity stripe surely didn't help either, but above all, PG Devon McMillian appeared to be out of sync. Uncharacteristic mistakes, poor shot selection and turnovers have plagued the tough guard in his last few games fresh off of two shoulder surgeries, and the second quarter of this game was no different. As the half came to a close, New Heights got a life preserver in the form of a 7-0 run, thanks to a big three pointer from Coley, a pair of free throws from DeShawn Wiggins and a prototypical Pinkston power move. Despite the ten point hole New Heights were in at halftime, the notion that they would be able to pull it out wasn't far fetched after the late half run.
Frazier came right out of the gate with a trey from the top of the key to get the Panthers' lead back into single digits. From that point onward, iS8 was injected with pressure serum. The see-saw action of the second half made this championship game between two NYC powers a memorable one, as the stuff hoops fans live for was all there and accounted for. The Panthers' zone defense dared New Heights to drain the three, and Pinkson and Frazier punished them for the gesture. The latter nailed one with 5:05 left in the quarter, and all of a sudden we were back at a one possession game, 53-50...and Pinkston became a man possessed.
"All I was thinking about at that point was getting back in the game to get that victory", he said.
As simple as that theory is, it was only trumped in simplicity by Pinkston's approach. The Panthers had no answer for the man-child, as whatever he didn't shoot a three over, he'd just steamroll on the way to the hoop. The 6'6 Pinkston capitalized on second chance opportunities and snatched rebounds in angry grizzly bear fashion. To say he ate his Wheaties before game time would be an understatement.
Smith and Wiggins all took turns answering Pinkston's charges with valuable buckets, but their lead never got their lead beyond five points until Pinkston hit the bench late in the third quarter. Nonetheless, another big time three from Coley brought New Heights back within three, and although the were down by five at the start of the fourth quarter, the atmosphere of the gym suggested that the pressure was on the Panthers.
The fourth quarter maxed out the volume as New Heights continued to push, and this time 6'8 center Devon Collier was the one doing damage inside. One of his buckets got the game within a deuce, 69-67, but Smith began to pour on the offense in the clutch. Taking a cue from Pinkston, every time New Heights made a push the mach speed Smith would break down the defense to keep the Panthers' lead intact. Pinkston, on the other hand was now in a noticeable trash talk match with Moore, and as things got more wild and wooly, he took a brief spot on the bench. But he and New Heights' defense also seemingly took Moore out of his rhythm, and once Pinkston was reinserted, it was back to business as usual. Another Pinkston beast move inside made it a 78-77 game with 2:48 left to play. But in the face of a 30 minute game of catch up, New Heights decided they'd had enough back and forth. After a game long struggle with his offense, Edwards played the unlikely hero with a huge three from the wing to tie the match at 80 with 2:10 left to play.
"I missed about four or five of those (three point attempts) during the game, but that last one put us over the hump", said Edwards. "But my father always tells me that shooters win wars. If you don't shoot, it can't go in." In pure PG fashion, Edwards followed the big shot with a slick bounce pass to Collier, and with only 1:40 left to play, New Heights had their first lead of the game, 82-80. In panic mode, the Panthers would answer with a wave of three point attempts, and Moore finally got one to fall with 53 seconds left and the said shot brought the Panthers within one, 84-83. Edwards' two clutch maneuvers were almost negated when a second pass intended for Collier went directly into the hands of Moore, but that wasn't the time to dwell on mistakes. When Edwards headed to the stripe after the said turnover, he coolly drained that pair that put New Heights up, 86-83, under the immense pressure of Championship Sunday at iS8. "Coach Kimani (Young) tells us when we're shooting free throws in practice, 'this is what we're here for.', he said. "That gave me the confidence to knock down those two free throws after that turnover."
Pressure makes people do strange things, and while it produced ice water in Edwards' veins, it caused the Panthers to implode. A pair of detrimental turnovers as a result of miscues between Gibbs and Moore as the clock wound down prevented the Panthers from saving the script and their title.
Jayvaughn Pinkston's monster (and game high) 29 points earned him game MVP Honors. Devon Collier added 17 points, and David Coley's 15 included a good number of clutch three pointers that kept New Heights afloat when mounting their comeback. Russ Smith's 19 points earned him the Sportsmanship award and JJ Moore's 22 were team high for the Panthers. Moore was also voted MVP of iS8.
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