The Powell High School boys basketball team’s time atop the 3A polls didn’t last long.
The Panthers dropped two of three games at the East-West Classic in Cody over the weekend. They fell 66-60 to No. 3-ranked Rawlins Saturday night after losing to Wheatland 63-57 in an early-morning tilt. Powell defeated Newcastle 70-58 on Friday afternoon.
Coach Chase Kistler chose to take the long view.
“I’m disappointed in losing only because I don’t like losing but from what we learned from it, and because of the teams we played against, I’m not too disappointed,” Kistler said of his debut weekend as a head varsity coach.
“Offensively I was very impressed. Any time you score more than 50 points you’re doing good,” he said. “Our defense has got to tighten down. We can’t give up that many points.”
Kistler said the players learned from the games. He thinks they will be a better team for it, and will improve once they get healthy.
Senior Cory Heny remains out until sometime after the new year, and fellow senior Hayden Cragoe remains hampered by a sore ankle from the long football season. In addition, another junior varsity player went down, leaving Powell “in a bind with numbers,” Kistler said.
He has 13 players on the varsity and JV, and juniors Matt Sweet and Zach Heny are seeing a lot of time on both teams. One player who was the picture of health all weekend was junior Kalei Smith, who netted 68 points, scoring 25, 17 and 26 points in the three contests.
“He definitely stepped up and was our scoring leader,” Kistler said. “We suspected that after last season, when he was one of our top scorers.”
But after a productive weekend, Smith went scoreless in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s loss to Rawlins. Powell had a lead going into the final period but struggled offensively, as Smith was unable to score.
“It’s hard to say why. It’s hard to say he ran out of gas,” Kistler said. “He was still playing hard and playing defense well.”
Powell was determined in the matchup with Rawlins, and relied on put-backs, outside shooting and a challenging defense to grab an early edge. Junior Carter Baxter repeatedly scored off rebounds as the Panthers built a 36-31 lead.
The Outlaws tied it in the third quarter but Powell, behind baskets from Smith, Cragoe and Baxter, seized the lead back. The sloppy passing and tentative play exhibited in the morning was replaced by crisper play and a more sustained attack. One problem was Smith’s struggles at the foul line, where he went 2 of 7. But he was effective from the floor,
Rawlins briefly seized the lead to start the fourth before Powell took it back. The teams were deadlocked at 55-55 before Baxter made a move inside to give the Panthers a 57-55 edge.
“He fights hard down in there, goes after loose balls ... he’s just that kind of player doing all those little things,” Kistler said.
Baxter scored 12, 15 and 17 points in the three games, and added 24 boards total.
An ugly echo from Saturday morning’s woes — a turnover — gave Rawlins an easy basket and the lead. However, Baxter, once again working the offensive glass, cleared a board and was fouled shooting. He missed both free throws, however, as Powell went 5 of 14 from line in the game. Missed short shots, layups that spun out and a miserable performance from the line led to the deficit.
Blake Schwan nailed a 3-pointer to pull Powell to 61-60 as the fourth period wound down. However, the Outlaws clung to a small lead as Powell struggled with clock management on both offense and defense late in the game.
Smith had 24 points but went 0-5 in the fourth period. Baxter added 17 and Schwan had eight, including a pair of threes in the fourth period. Cragoe took one shot, scored two points and fouled out in the final minute.
Kistler said the 6-3 senior needs to regain his confidence and be more effective on offense.
In the Saturday morning game, Powell appeared a tad sleepy at the start, falling behind 16-11 to the Bulldogs after one period. The Panthers committed nine turnovers in the quarter and 15 in the first half. Wheatland held a nine-point lead at the half.
The other problem was the Bulldogs’ Kendrick Jackson, who was almost impossible to stop during the game. Jackson scored 28 points, and rebounded and passed to pace Wheatland to the win. His father played for the Denver Nuggets, and the son showed some pro-style moves.
Smith dunked to pull the Panthers within five with less than 4 minutes to play as Powell applied full-court pressure. But Wheatland made six of its eight free throws down the stretch to hold onto the lead. Continued PHS problems with turnovers also stalled the comeback attempt.
Matt Sweet took a charge to give the Panthers the ball back and a chance to tie the game with 1:45 to play. But another Powell turnover — the 25th of the game — gave Wheatland the ball back, and the teams exchanged possession twice more without a shot being taken. One more turnover, the 27th of the game, allowed the Bulldogs to open up a five-point lead with under a minute to play and hold on for the win.
Smith paced Powell with 17 points, Baxter added 15, Heny had 10, Cragoe seven, and Michael and Schwan both scored four. Cragoe has six assists and Smith dropped five dimes.
Kistler said the rash of turnovers pointed to focus problems.
“To me, when the ball is bouncing off fingertips and bad passes, and not hitting your passes in stride, that’s a lack of focus to me,” he said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort. They were playing hard.”
He noted the JV team played late Friday, so the Panthers didn’t get back to Powell until 11:30 p.m. and then had to be on the road back to Cody before dawn Saturday morning.
The Panthers opened the season Friday afternoon with a victory.
Powell stumbled at the start, and fell behind Newcastle by nine in the first period. But they rallied, as tough defense, steals and layups, led by a fired-up Cragoe, rallied the Panthers and they built a 26-20 lead at the end of one period.
Powell struggled to score in the second period, but clung to a 32-28 lead at the half. The third period was another explosion of offense, including a rain of 3-pointers, and they built a 44-34 lead after three periods.
Newcastle tried to rally, and pulled closer at the start of the fourth stanza, but the Panthers hung on behind Smith’s hot hand and the all-around game of Cragoe, who hustled all over the court.
Smith paced the Panthers with 25 points, followed by 12 for Baxter, 12 for Cragoe, nine for Heny off the bench and seven for Schwan. Cragoe added five steals and three blocked shots.
Powell’s early-season test continues with its home opener. The Panthers will host Jackson Hole at 7:30 p.m. Friday and No. 2-ranked Star Valley at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Jackson won all three of its games in Cody and “really surprised me,” Kistler said. “Jackson was a very poised team, took care of the ball — not flashy but they played smart ball.”
The Panthers had a “mental practice” on Monday, watching film and adjusting, while increasing their focus on defense, Kistler said. Today (Tuesday) they will be back to a regular practice.
The Powell junior varsity split a pair of games Friday and lost its sole game Saturday, finishing 1-2 for the weekend. Powell defeated Newcastle 46-30, lost to Wheatland 60-55 and on Saturday fell to 55-49 to Rawlins.