Panthers fall in bi-district to Avery, 68-66

Feb. 21, 2006 - MOUNT PLEASANT - Down by double digits with less than two minutes to go, the North Hopkins Panthers scrapped back Monday night to give themselves one last chance to win their bi-district game.

The worst percentage shot a player can take, but the only chance they had was when Steven Crocker grabbed a rebound with 1.2 seconds to play, turned and threw the ball the length of the court.

Everyone in Tiger Gym held his breath as the ball sailed 85 feet and hit the backboard just a foot to the left of the rim. So far, and yet so close.

When the last desperation shot missed, Avery was finally able to celebrate a 68-66 victory over the Panthers that seemed in the bag with 90 seconds to go but wasn't secured until the buzzer sounded.

Avery (25-7) held a 65-54 lead with two minutes to play, but the Panthers cut that lead by forcing four Avery turnovers in the final minutes and capitalizing on them as Crocker scored five of his seven points in the last 1:47 of the contest. Add in two key steals and a lay-up by Jake Cockrum with seven seconds left, and the Panthers outscored Avery, 12-3, during the last two minutes.

But, even though Avery missed 5-of-6 free throws in the last minute, the Panthers' season ran out of time.

"It was a great year for the four seniors," NHHS head coach Steve Drummond said of Cockrum, Cory Johnson, J.P. Whittle and Spencer McQueen. "I don't think people expected a whole lot out of this group, so I'm proud of them.

"The kids didn't quit, and I'm proud of them for that. They kept trying hard, and that's the way they played all year."

Johnson led the Panthers with 28 points, including four 3-pointers, seven rebounds and eight steals. He and McQueen (eight points, two assists) also helped control Avery's best player, Jaymar Baty who finished with a quiet 15 points.

But, the Panthers (22-9) couldn't stop the strong inside game of the Bulldogs, who gathered in 20 offensive rebounds (compared to eight for NH), and had 20 second-chance points. Dustin Woods came off the bench to give Avery a spark with 17 points and eight rebounds, while diminutive guard Jordan Varley hit three 3-pointers en route to 19 points and five assists.

"The kids gave it all they had, but we just got whipped so bad physically on the boards, especially in the first half," Drummond said. "We just didn't get any offensive rebounds. I thought physically, they just whipped us inside."

The Panthers stayed in the game by shooting 62 percent from 2-point land (18-of-29) and hitting seven 3-pointers. They also forced 23 Avery turnovers.

The Panthers led briefly in the first quarter, holding a 14-12 advantage after McQueen knocked down a 3-pointer with 1:15 to play. But, Avery retook the advantage at the end of the period, 19-16.

North Hopkins tied the game four different times after that, but could never regain the lead.

The Panthers received eight points, four steals and four assists from Cockrum, and five points from Whittle. Sophomore Roger Sancho added eight points and four boards.

The Panthers also played somewhat short-handed due to foul trouble as Whittle picked up his third foul with more than a minute to go in the first quarter and eventually fouled out. Crocker picked up his fourth foul midway through the third quarter, and McQueen also fouled out.

Whittle gave NH its final tie, 46-46, with 51 seconds to play in the third quarter by completing a conventional 3-point play. But, Avery scored seven straight points to go up 53-46.

The Panthers broke the run when, on a fast break, Whittle whipped a behind-the-back pass to Johnson for a lay-up with seven minutes to go.

Avery responded by taking the lead back up to 59-48 with a little over four minutes left when Drummond took a timeout.

"We talked about not giving up," he said. "Play hard to the end."

Cockrum responded with a pair of steals, including one on the baseline in which he whipped the ball to Johnson before falling out of bounds, and Johnson hit a 3-pointer and a lay-up to swing the momentum back in the Panthers' favor.

They eventually cut the lead to three points, 66-63, with 25 seconds remaining on Crocker's twisting bucket. But, they couldn't close the final gap.

"We really had a chance on the last three or four possessions," Drummond said. "We wanted to take the ball to the hole, and we pulled up and shot some threes when we probably should have went to the basket."

Avery advances to the area round to play either Lindsay or Merit Bland.

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