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Panthers rally to claim tourney title

Boys show what they are capable of, says coach

Entering the fourth quarter of the Big Horn Basin Basketball Classic championship game, Powell boys’ basketball coach Chase Kistler still hadn’t seen what he expected from his team this season.

Powell was down 15, and had played poorly. The team, which was the preseason pick as the top 3A squad in the state, was once again struggling. When the quarter was over, and the title belonged to the Panthers, Kistler had witnessed what they were capable of doing on the court.

“We were getting our butts kicked going into the fourth quarter,” Kistler said. “And then they just fought back in the fourth quarter. We’ve been questioned in the early part of this season. And they answered it.”

He said he knew what the Panthers could do when they played well together, stopped committing so many turnovers, and made their shots from the field and the free throw line.

“I finally saw in that fourth quarter,” Kistler said. “We played with patience and took good shots and we made our free throws.”

Powell won the inaugural tourney in Cowley by sweeping three games, but not without battles in all. They opened the tourney by defeating 2A Rocky Mountain High School 60-44 Friday afternoon, but it took a second-half explosion for that to happen. Powell trailed at halftime, and Kistler admitted he let his players have it in the locker room during the break.

“Rocky’s a good team and they were on their home court,” he said. “We have been a slow-starting team, always been that way. They came out on fire and were ready to play.”

But Kistler made his point loud and clear, and Powell dominated the second half, breezing to a 16-point win.

Junior guard Kalei Smith continued to run the show for Powell, scoring 20 points. Junior forward Carter Baxter added 15 while junior guard Zach Heny once again provided a spark, scoring 10 points off the bench.

Senior Hayden Cragoe had seven points and seven rebounds, while senior Garrett Michael added six points and five boards.

Powell faced Worland in a noon contest Saturday, and the Panthers played in a more cohesive manner, building a 16-point lead late in the game. But they once again showed a tendency to relax, and the Warriors trimmed it to four in the closing minutes.

But consistent scoring kept Powell from throwing away the lead, as four Panthers were in double figures, with Smith netting 15, Cragoe dropping 12 and Baxter and Blake Schwan both scoring 11. Schwan hit three 3-pointers, and those long shots helped stem the Worland comeback attempt as Powell won 60-54.

Kistler said it was good to see Cragoe regain his offensive touch. The 6-3 senior has been plagued by a sore ankle, and has been reluctant to shoot, but he took 15 shots against Worland and helped balance the attack while adding seven rebounds. Michael once again was strong inside, getting 11 boards.

The title game against Buffalo started with another challenge for the Panthers, as Smith was called for a technical foul for dunking in pre-game warmups. After a pair of free throws were made before the game even started, Powell opened the contest down 2-0.

“It was a difficult game,” Kistler said. “We knew we had to come out quick, especially against a team like Buffalo.”

But the game was played at a very slow tempo, he said. Both teams had played three games in a little more than 24 hours and it showed.

“They’re starting to get into shape,” Kistler said.

He had planned to rest some players, including Smith and Cragoe, who are battling through some pain, but could not do so with all three games being hotly contested.

“It came down to winning,” Kistler said. “We wanted to get those three wins. We just started answering some questions.”

For three quarters, Powell just did not play consistently, and committed 17 turnovers. Facing a double-digit deficit going into the final quarter, Kistler said he challenged the team to play up to its potential. That they did, going on a 23-3 run.

Smith hit from the outside and inside, and also got to the line. He was 10-for-10 from the free throw line in the game, leading Powell as it made up the deficit and took control of the contest before winning 55-52.

Smith scored 18 points, giving him 53 for the tourney. Cragoe added 11 points and led Powell with six rebounds. He also paced the Panthers with three assists and two steals.

Kistler said the team was extremely happy with the tourney win. Smith, Cragoe and Baxter were all named to the all-tourney team.

“It was a good way to go into break,” Kistler said.

The Panthers are now 5-3 on the season, 1-1 in the West Conference. They have some time off before they return to the court Friday, Jan. 10. Senior guard Cory Heny may be ready to take to the court as he recovers from an injury.

The game will be right back in Cowley, the scene of the Panthers’ big comeback and, Kistler hopes, turning point in the season.

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