O'Fallon Progress

Two squeakers propel Panthers to fifth at Centralia

The OTHS boys basketball team, on the strength of two nail-biters, emerged from the Centralia Holiday Tournament with an 8-4 overall record and a fifth-place finish in the state’s oldest and, arguably, most venerated mid-season hoopfest.

First year Panther head coach Brian Muniz’s squad rallied twice in the tournament, edging Cahokia in double overtime 64-62 to open the tourney and squeezing past Thornton Fractional North 59-57 in its fifth-place finale. In between, the Panthers lost in the tourney quarter-finals to No. 1-seeded Chicago Marist, 67-40, but rebounded with a 39-30 win over SWC rival Alton.

“Our kids were able to find a way to win in two very close games,” said Muniz. “I was happy with the way they responded to adversity and battled in our wins over Cahokia and Thornton. We have a difficult stretch of games at the start of January, so we hope that we have gained some momentum with the solid effort at Centralia.”

A thrilling double overtime win over Cahokia was the springboard for the Panthers’ tourney success. Things didn’t start well for the OTHS squad as the Comanches jumped to an early 13-2 lead. O’Fallon switched to a zone defense against the taller Cahokia squad and the decision proved a good one. The Comanches went away from their inside game and began firing 3-point attempts from the perimeter. Cahokia was 2-for-17 from behind the arc, giving O’Fallon the window of opportunity they needed to scramble back into the game. Ronnie Anthony scored 17 to lead the Panthers with solid contributions from Jalen Hodge (16) and Burke Watts (12). Jarvus Smith scored the biggest basket of the game, banging in a jumper in the paint with 17 seconds remaining in the second overtime. Smith’s hoop was the game-winner.

The come-from-behind win was tempered in the tourney quarter-finals when the Panthers faced off against Marist. Utilizing their superior height advantage, the Chicago squad took control of the boards and bulldozed their way to a 19-8 lead by the end of the first quarter. Five 3-point field goals by the Panthers was not enough to challenge Marist in the second half, sending the OTHS squad into the fifth place bracket against SWC rival Alton.

Points were at a premium when the Panthers faced off against the Redbirds. Baskets by Hodge, Deion Norfleet and Burke Watts helped O’Fallon ease into an initial 15-6 lead. Both teams were saddled with poor field goal shooting in the second period with only a total of eleven points scored. Fortunately for the Panthers, they were able to maintain their lead, going into the locker room at halftime on the positive end of a 20-12 score.

Alton started the second half with a modest scoring spurt that whittled the Panthers’ lead, but baskets by Watts and Alex Orr stalled the Redbird rally. O’Fallon turned up the heat defensively in the final two quarters, holding Alton to only 18 points and only 30 points for the game. Hitting key free throws also contributed to the Panthers’ 39-30 victory.

The “ugly” win over Alton moved O’Fallon into the fifth-place game against Thornton Fractional North. In a reversal of form from their Alton match-up, the Panthers came out of the gate with hot hands. The OTHS squad ripped the nets at a 67 percent clip from the field and had four players hit double figures. Hodge paced the OTHS attack with 15 points. Burke Watts pitched in with 11, while Alex Orr and Smith each hit double figures with 10 points.

The Panther cagers would need every one of their points to squeeze past Thornton. Trailing 26-24 at halftime, the OTHS squad matched their Chicago-area opponents basket for basket in the third quarter and had enough reserve in the tank to out-score Thornton 17-12 in the final stanza and secure a 59-57 victory — the third in four Centralia tourney appearances.

“Our kids played well when the chips were down,” said Muniz. “We found ways to win when things didn’t look promising. We will need that same type of determination when we return to conference play this week.”

The OTHS boys’ squad opens the 2017 segment of their season with a road game this Friday, Jan. 6 against Collinsville Christmas tournament champion Edwardsville.

The Lady Panthers were scheduled to start this evening, Thursday, Jan. 5 hosting the Lady Tigers.