Heading down the home stretch in the Southwestern Conference race, the OFallon Panthers have worked their way into a contending positiona spot that most basketball prognosticators did not envision at the start of the winter season.
However, a big road win last Friday night at Belleville East and another victory Tuesday at Granite City now have propelled the Panthers to 15-9 overall and 8-3 in league play just one game behind league-leading Edwardsville and tied with Alton in second place.
The pivotal contest in OFallons recent run was the 56-51 victory they earned over Belleville East on Friday evening.
The Panthers spotted their hosts a 10-0 led in the first four minutes of the game but rallied from the initial double-digit deficit.
OFallon outscored the Lancers 23-9 over the final nine minutes of the first half.
The catalyst for the OTHS surge was an aggressive half court 2-3 zone defense that befuddled the Lancers.
Ill-advised shots and turnovers forced by the Panthers were converted into easy baskets at the other end of the court.
The result was a 23-19 OFallon lead at the break.
With just four points at halftime, OFallon junior Donovan Franklin recovered his offensive rhythm in the second half.
The 66" swing man finished with a game-high 24 points, and his return to form could not have come at a better time for the Panthers.
A 3-point bomb by Franklin with three minutes remaining in the third quarter extended the OFallon lead to 36-25.
It was at this point that the Lancers mounted a rally.
Two free throws by Easts Darreon Reddick sliced the once comfortable OTHS lead to just three, 50-47, with 58 seconds left in the third stanza.
Naason Cook was able to preserve the OFallon advantage with two clutch free throws. The game turned into a nail-biter down the stretch with the outcome in doubt until Franklin nailed two free throws with 4.8 seconds remaining. The victory was OFallons fifth in their last six games.
The streak continued on Tuesday evening when the Panthers donned their road warrior gear and traveled to Granite City. The Warriors made the game competitive, matching the Panthers basket for basket in the early going. Behind the scoring of Franklin and fellow junior Darien McClain, OFallon took a 23-17 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Relying on balanced scoring and good work on the boards, The OTHS squad was able to maintain an advantage over the next eight minutes, taking a narrow 36-33 lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Warriors didnt go away in the second half. Behind Kenny Berrys 23 points and Tre Allens 15, Granite City doggedly remained within striking distance.
Superior firepower from the perimeter and yeoman work by Chance and Isaiah Armstrong on the boards allowed OFallon to stave off repeated efforts by the Warriors to cut into the lead. In the fourth quarter, the Panthers methodically took the Granite City defense apart.
A baseline jumper by Franklin and a driving lay-up through the lane by Chance Armstrong immediately put OFallon ahead by double digits in the opening minute of the period. Good free throw shooting allowed the Panthers to maintain their hard-fought lead and collect a 74-61 victory.
Friday evening the Panthers will finally return to the Panther Dome for another critical Southwestern Conference showdown this time against the East St. Louis Flyers who were surprised by OFallon last month when the Panthers knocked them off on their home court.
Game time for Fridays home game will be at approximately 7 p.m.