March 8, 2014

North White ends Pioneer's sectional reign

by Rick Conrad
For the Pharos-Tribune

FULTON — The Pioneer boys basketball team has experienced growing pains this season after heavy graduation losses last year.

The Panthers endured and were playing better ball entering this year’s sectional and were hoping for a good showing. The Panthers drew a bye and faced North White Friday night with the winner playing for the sectional crown.

Just four weeks ago the Panthers dropped a conference game to the Vikings by three points. This time Pioneer struggled to find the basket as North White moved on with a 50-39 win over the Panthers, ending their four-year sectional reign.

Defensively the Panthers did what they needed to do to win the game. They held the Vikings to 10 points less than their season average. However in the first half the Panthers couldn’t hit water if they were sitting in a boat. When the Panthers were putting up shots they were coming away empty. Often missing from point-blank range, coach Austin Cowley admitted his squad was hurrying their shots.

“We struggled with what they were doing to us defensively at first. When we settled down and started playing we were rushing our shots and we were getting good looks at the basket,” said Cowley. “But all the credit has to go to North White. Tonight they were just the better team.”

The Panthers started the contest with a sticky defense that was contesting shots and forcing North White to turn the ball over repeatedly. Unfortunately for the Black and Gold they didn’t take advantage of it on the offensive end of the floor. With missed shots from the Panthers and turnovers by the Vikings the score stood at 4-4 with 2:20 left in the first quarter. Pioneer then let its guard down some on defense and the Vikings went on a 7-0 run to end the first with a 11-4 lead.

The Panthers opened the second by changing things up on defense. They threw a zone at North White and the Vikings answered with a bomb from outside to make it a 10-0 run before Zach Mason got free inside at the 6:45 mark. The Panthers kept battling and a 3-ball from Chad Clifford with 2:50 left in the second cut the Vikings lead down to seven at 22-15. That’s as close as Pioneer would get though as a 3-pointer by Dalton Fleck and untimely fouls on the Panthers pushed the lead back up to 32-19 at the half.

The young Panthers came out of the locker room after the break looking as if they were going to make this a game. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Keith Nies brought it back to 32-25 by the 7:00 mark forcing North White Coach Eli Henson to call a timeout.

Henson’s timeout speech was spirited and animated and his squad took notice. With the score still at 32-25 at the 3:23 mark the Panther’s J.P. Smith was whistled for a foul (the seventh for the Panthers to zero for North White in the half) and Cowley quickly contested the call and the disparity on the number of fouls. The official he was speaking to issued a technical foul on the Pioneer bench. By the time the Panthers regained control of the ball the Vikings lead had gone back up to 37-25. The first North White foul of the half came at the 2:56 mark as the Vikings went on to a 41-29 lead after three quarters of play.

Things went from bad to worse for the Panthers in the final quarter as Mason fouled out at the 6:52 mark and moments later Caleb Kindley picked up his fourth. On top of that Pioneer continued to struggle from the field and started turning the ball over more. By the 2:00 mark Cowley began going to his bench as the Vikings went on to the 50-39 win.

Leading the way for Pioneer was Nies with 13 points while Kindley ended with 10.

Luke Diener was high man for the Vikings with 11 points while Clint Hendress added 10 himself.

“They kind of surprised us tonight. We had practiced going against their 2-3 zone and they came out man-to-man,” Smith said. “We were a little nervous coming in to the game and it took us awhile to settle down. But we tried to play hard and we tried to play with all we had.”

Added Cowley, “We came out to start the game and I could tell we had a case of the nerves with it being the sectional. North White isn’t a tall team but they’re big and they played physical. When we got the ball down low our guys just rushed things and were missing easy shots. We were a very young squad this year and our seniors have laid a solid foundation for the future of our program. It was nice to have J.P. out there each night doing what he did and to get Brad [Biggs] back after taking a year off was big too.”

North White (15-8) faces Tri-County (16-6) tonight in the sectional final. Pioneer finishes 3-18.