The Panthers entered the Class 3A West Regional Tournament in Star Valley needing two wins — considered a tall order for the fourth seed — to qualify for the state tournament, but they lost to Lander and Jackson following a victory against top-seeded Star Valley.
“There’s no reason not to be proud of what we accomplished in that tournament,” PHS head coach Chase Kistler said.
An early postseason exit didn’t prevent the Panthers (3-20) from reaching their primary year-end goal. Powell finished the tournament with a point-differential of -3.6 per game (after finishing the regular season at -9.9 per game), and was competitive through all 12 quarters of play.
“Like I told the guys, from the start of the season to the end of the season we were playing much better,” Kistler said. “This tournament, we played the best basketball we had all season —and we played it consistently all three games.”
Not a fluke
The first round pitted Powell with the only Class 3A team it was able to knock off during the regular season.
The matchup was an opportunity for the Panthers to validate a 46-43 home win over Star Valley on Feb. 19. For the host Braves, it was a chance to exact revenge in front of their raucous home crowd.
Instead, senior Kristian Stenlund exploded for a season-high 28 points to carry the Panthers to a 46-40 upset of the Braves on Thursday night.
“He just started out early, got a little confidence and really just played the best I’ve ever seen him play,” Kistler said of Stenlund.
Junior T.J. Abraham added seven points and senior Kaden Moore had eight rebounds as the Panthers again beat Star Valley (15-7) with just 46 total points.
Kistler said the Panthers were excited about drawing Star Valley in the first round. Not only had they beat the Braves already, but they felt the individual match-ups favored Powell.
“Size-wise, we matched up well. And we always did things really well against them. We always rebounded really well against them,” Kistler said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better side of the bracket. I think that kind of helped with their confidence a little bit.”
Kistler said another Wyoming coach in Star Valley mentioned that a second win against the Braves would quiet those who chalked up last month’s victory to luck. But the Panthers held the same motivation against each opponent.
“All week, our guys kind of knew, we had the mentality that this weekend could be the last weekend we play, so no matter who we go against we’re going to go as hard as we can,” Kistler said.
Late letdown vs. Lander
The Panthers refused to let Lander pull away in the first half, but a third-quarter Tigers run put the game out of reach, and pushed Powell to a do-or-die situation after Friday’s 62-50 loss.
Lander jumped out to an 8-2 lead and it looked as though Powell exhausted its supply of basketball during Thursday night’s statement victory. But with two minutes left in the opening quarter the Panthers claimed a 9-8 lead and forced the Tigers to call a time out.
Powell would fall behind again in the second quarter when a Lander 3-pointer made it 19-11, but the Panthers resiliency pulled them to 22-20, and Moore’s drive down the left side of the lane tied it up at 22-22. Moore scored nine points in the first half and finished with 13. Freshman Carson Heinen added 13 points and eight rebounds.
The Tigers’ Kobey Simpson went 1-for-2 from the line at the end of the second quarter to give No. 2 Lander a 23-22 lead at the break.
When the Tigers stormed out of the locker room and promptly went on a 13-4 run, Powell no longer had a response.
“We knew we really had to take care of the ball and slow the game down,” Kistler said. “There was a little let down in the third quarter where we let their tempo kind of get to us a little bit.”
Stenlund’s corner three cut Lander’s lead to seven points, at 36-29, but the Tigers won the quarter 20-10 to establish a double-digit advantage at 44-32.
Powell regained its composure and kept pace with Lander in the final frame. The Panthers cut the lead to 10 points on four occasions, but were unable to get within striking distance by game’s end.
Jettisoned by Jackson
The last time the Panthers played Jackson in the same week as Star Valley, they lost by 36.
In the consolation semifinals on Saturday, Powell cut that deficit by 30 in a season-ending 46-40 loss to the Southwest’s No. 2-seed.
Jackson’s Henry Geraci scored a game-high 22 points, including 20 in the second half, as the Broncs did just enough to hold off the Panthers on a win-or-go-home Saturday afternoon.
Kistler said Powell’s zone defense limited the amount of open floor for Jackson.
“They’re very good when they can run screens and pick and rolls,” Kistler said. “So we ran a zone almost the entire game and that really kind of threw (Geraci) through a loop. He couldn’t come off screens on the pick and roll.”
As the Panthers fell behind little by little in the second half, they strayed from the zone at times in an attempt to quicken their offensive pace. Geraci used the extra space to find his offense.
“They also started to run double screens on certain zones where he could come into that zone and get open and he started nailing shots,” Kistler said.
The Panthers were one shot away from making it a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter, despite trailing 44-36 with 1:16 to play.
Stenlund nailed a 3-pointer to make it a five-point game, but was off-target on Powell’s next trip down the floor. An intentional foul with about 10 seconds left in the game put the Broncs on the foul line, where they were 4-for-6 in the final 1:19.
Powell found Stenlund open for a three out of a timeout, and though he missed, Abraham was fouled after his offensive rebound. Abraham made 1-of-2 foul shots to make it 45-40 with 5.6 seconds to play. Abraham scored three points on the night and was 3-for-9 on free throws.
Stenlund scored 12 points and Heinen had 11, followed by eight from Moore. Senior Sean Wagner scored four and senior Zach Schuler added two.
The loss ended the Panthers’ season, but as Kistler noted, they were in some pretty good company.
Aside from top-seeded Star Valley, the Class 3A State Tournament will be without the Buffalo Bison, who entered regionals as the No. 2-ranked team in the state.
Lander won the weekend and will be the West’s No. 1 seed at state. Cody was the runner-up, followed by Lovell (No. 3) and Jackson (No. 4).
The East will be represented by No. 1 Wheatland, No. 2 Rawlins, No. 3 Worland and No. 4 Douglas.
The Panthers will lose four seniors — Stenlund, Moore, Schuler and Wagner — to graduation, but not before their leadership impacts next year’s squad.
“The senior group that we had this year, what they did real well was teach our young guys how to act,” Kistler said. “They did everything that was ever asked of them. They did everything correct on and off the court. Our younger guys learned what it takes, they also learned what’s going to have to go into it to be a successful program.”
The most important thing the Panthers can do to improve in 2017 is simple — play more basketball. Many of the Panthers are obligated to other athletic endeavors during the summer, leaving little time to get on the gym floor.
“Getting them to show up in our open gyms, we’ve got to get a large core of kids to come in and take advantage of it,” Kistler said.
Sophomores Zach Meredith, Jace Smith and freshmen Kaelan Groves and Heinen play some form of organized basketball outside the high school season.
“There’s a good group of kids that do focus on basketball, so we’ll have to see what they take advantage of,” Kistler said.