The Lady Panthers of South Iron closed out another fantastic regular season last week with wins over Neelyville, Farmington and Doniphan. They have now won seven in a row and cruise into the District Tournament with a sparking 23-2 record. This is a special team, and the lofty aspirations of a State Championship are certainly not unfounded.
On Tuesday they travelled to Neelyville to take on the Tigers, and even though this one was a bit sloppy, the defense really stepped up and stole the victory. The first quarter resulted in an 11-10 advantage for the Panthers, but their shots just weren’t falling. Things got better in the second with an 18-13 frame, but a 29-23 lead at the half is not the level of comfort that South Iron typically enjoys.
The second half would be even tighter, with the Panthers just barely edging out the Tigers 18-17 in both frames combined. They were able to hang on for the win despite shooting just 36% as a whole and only 50% from the free throw line. Neelyville, had a gritty performance, hanging with South Iron throughout, but the Panther defense forced 30 turnovers. Even though they failed to score much as a result of them, it was enough to throw the Tigers off their game. Panthers win 47-40.
Madison Ayers, Allecia Cornell and Enzley Dinkins all shared the team lead with 11 points. As a collective unit, the offense made just four shots from downtown. Very uncharacteristic of this Panther squad.
Then on Thursday, South Iron returned home and took on Class 5 powerhouse, Farmington. The Knights were 20-4 coming in, so this one would be a test. And it was a challenge early on with the Panthers starting out sluggish on defense and the Knights taking advantage. The Panthers found themselves trailing 19-16 after the first, but they managed to get their act together in the second. Anna Parker made three from beyond the arc in the frame, and South Iron churned out a 25-14 second quarter to take the lead at the half.
After the break, the Panthers really got in synch and buckled down on defense. They put up 23 in the third, thanks in large part to Ayers’ eight points and Parker’s 11, and were able to hold Farmington to just 10. That built a sizable lead and allowed South Iron to chew up the clock in the final frame. They held off the Knights 15-12 and won the game in convincing fashion 79-55.
Assistant Coach Jeff Ayers commented on the Panther turnaround, saying, “Our defense was more engaged and shots started to fall. We made 12 three pointers as a team which was a huge positive. Farmington is a great team and program so this was a quality win for us. Our crowd was great and the atmosphere was exciting.”
Parker had a monster game with 33 points. She nailed seven threes and went a perfect 4-of-4 from the line. Ayers was big in this one as well with 22 points and three of her own from beyond the arc. Cornell was the only other player in double figures with 11.
That was a statement win, but the next test was fast approaching, and would be an even tougher one. The next day the Panthers travelled to Doniphan to take on the Donettes, a Class 4 team that was sitting at 22-1. South Iron was ready though and they came out firing in the first half. They put up 34 points thanks to big threes from Ayers and Parker, but foul trouble eventually reared its ugly head and that slowed the early offensive barrage. At the break they found themselves up 34-18.
After halftime, the Panthers still had to be careful with multiple players in dangerous foul territory, and that allowed Doniphan back into the game. The Donettes won the third-quarter battle 19-16 and they would make a push to try and mount an incredible comeback in front of a packed house hoping for a hometown miracle. They outscored the Panthers 13-10 in the fourth, but it wouldn’t be enough, as South Iron had dug the first-half hole just a little too deep. The Panthers hung on to win 60-50.
Parker paced the offense with 21 points on eight buckets and a trey, while Ayers had 14 after spending most of her night at the line. She made 9-of-14 free throws. Drew Gayle had the hot hand from downtown, hitting three of the team’s five three-pointers and totaled 13 points.
This was a huge win for the Panthers and the perfect level of competition heading into the District Playoffs. It proves they can beat great teams from big schools and should have them thoroughly prepared to rip through Class 1 competition.
The playoffs await.