Well, they did it again. It’s a good thing winning never becomes old hat, because the South Iron Panthers have now rattled off five District Championships in a row. They’re looking for their third consecutive Class 1 State Championship and will get a shot at it now after plowing through the District Tourney.
A 24-4 record earned the Panthers the top seed and a first round bye, so their bracket began in the Semifinals against St. Paul Lutheran. They took the Giants down in dominating fashion on Wednesday with a 77-35 victory and then headed to the Finals on Friday. The game against Bunker was a much tighter affair, with the Eagles forcing overtime thanks to a second half comeback, but the Panthers prevailed. They crushed in OT and used a 64-51 win to claim the District hardware they know all too well.
In the first game against St. Paul, South Iron jumped out early with 19 points in the first quarter, and they would make a habit of pouring it on in this one. After the first eight minutes they led 19-11, but the second quarter would open things up even more. Twenty-five from the Panthers to just 10 from the Giants dug quite a halftime hole. St. Paul couldn’t handle the defensive pressure and South Iron was highly efficient with their shots. The 44-21 halftime score had a nice ring to it.
The onslaught continued after the break, with the Panthers taking no chances in the third, draining another 26 points. The defense was even more stingy in the final half, allowing just five points in the third quarter. With the lead more or less disaster-proof, South Iron let the subs get a chance to eat up the fourth-quarter minutes, and take this one to the buzzer. The 77-35 win was certainly convincing enough to push the Panthers into the Finals.
Sawyer Huff paced the scoring in this one with his 21 points on seven buckets and a pair of threes, but Jermartez Burse earned the games only double-double with 15 points and 10 boards. He added four assists, three steals and a block to compliment his 4-of-4 performance at the line. Kolton Dinkins hit a pair of big threes and amassed 12 points, while William Malone made 5-of-6 shots from the floor for a 10-spot.
Then in the Finals, it looked like South Iron was going to cruise once again after a 17-7 first quarter, but the Eagles had other ideas. The Panthers starting five got into some foul trouble and this tenacious Bunker squad took advantage. They saw an opening and pounced with a 15-9 effort in the second frame to trim the lead to just four. Heading into the half the Panthers were clinging to a 26-22 advantage, and struggling against the surge of momentum that Bunker was riding.
After the break the Eagles remained charged up and continued to stymie South Iron. They won the third-quarter tussle 17-13 and managed to tie the game up with just eight minutes remaining in regulation. The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, with both teams trading buckets, and it came down to the final seconds. However, neither team was able to capitalize and the game was destined for overtime, knotted at 50-all.
This is where the Panthers found their next gear. Like flipping an on switch, these boys erupted in the extra period and ripped off 14 points in just five minutes of play. They stepped up defensively as well, and their press utterly blanketed the Eagles. One point. That’s all they allowed. The 14-1 OT session re-instituted the Panther domination we’ve seen all season and sent the players spilling out onto the floor in a frenzy of elation.
Head Coach Dusty Dinkins commented on the game and his respect for the effort by saying, “This game is a perfect reflection of our season and several other games we have played this year. We encountered numerous moments where we could have chosen to stop competing, stop playing hard and not believing in each other and our strategies. However, we chose to stay together, keep believing and continuing to battle to the final seconds. As a result of those decisions we have been rewarded with many accomplishments and possibly a few more are in our future. Very proud of this group of young men and the way they respond to adversity and challenges.”
Burse was huge in this one with 24 points, a 3-of-5 effort from downtown, seven rebounds and four assists. He was backed up by Gabe Ruble, who hit a trio of treys and was good for 15 points, four assists and three steals, while Huff managed to crack double digits with 10 points and four helpers as well.
This was another nice moment to add to the ridiculously long list for the Panthers over the past several years, but the road ahead will not get any easier. They will face a 20-5 Chadwick team in the first round of the State Championship Finals on Monday, which will be the first hurdle in attempting to complete the “3-peat”.
Good luck Panthers!