Panthers stay course to win third consecutive Bay of Quinte senior championship

Mikayla Leavitt and Chloe Marshall after winning the 2018 Bay of Quinte Championship. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette File Photo)

PECI defence stifles Centre Hastings Friday night

ADAM BRAMBURGER

STAFF WRITER

It was a slow start overcome by hard work for a dominant finish.

Whether describing the PECI Senior Basketball Panthers’ 2018 championship season or their 52-24 triumph over Centre Hastings Friday that clinched a third consecutive Bay of Quinte Conference title, those words fit.

A Centurion squad that handed the Panthers their first loss in October gained an early 9-2 lead that could have shaken their confidence. Instead. PECI persevered. Showing signs of their stifling pressure defence, the Panthers evened the score by the end of the first quarter. Then, they hit their stride.

Champs – The PECI Senior Basketball Panthers examine their trophy Friday at Eastside Secondary School. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

Coming back after the break, the Panthers went on a 10-point run. Hard work and fast hands forced mistakes and turnovers. Setting up offensively against Centre Hastings’ zone defence, they swung the ball around the perimeter to find open shots and rebounded with abandon. The lead was 10 points by halftime and it continued to grow.

Coach Rob Garden credited his team for not getting down early.

“I think we just stuck with the game plan. We knew that zone was going to give us fits. It took some time to figure it out,” he said. “We went down 9-2 and we just kept saying, ‘It’s OK, just stick with the program.’ We stuck with our identity. It’s been a season where it took us time to figure it out, but our defensive pressure really gives us a lot of life. We got some turnovers, we got some easy lay-ups and started to relax. The shots started falling and we didn’t look back from there.”

Garden said the Panthers expected the Centurions to give them outside shots. They practiced knowing that possibility and they executed. The perimeter work also came in handy to kill the clock late.

Mikayla Levitt, who had eight points on that run and 25 points overall, said the Panthers rallied around their commitment to defence and it likely is what made them champions.

“I think our defence is what keeps us in the game and brings us up. Our defence is probably the toughest I’ve played with in my four years of basketball so far,” she said. “I feel like they’re didn’t put up many points against us. We’re a very, very aggressive team.”

Chloe Marshall agreed.

Scoring – Panthers guard Mikayla Leavitt (10) puts up a shot as Centre Hastings’ Lauren Kennedy defends. Teammates Chloe Marshall (15) and Madalynn Snider (5) look on. Leavitt had a game-high 25 points. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

“Tonight, our press was really good. We all worked together to get the offensive rebounds and we got a lot off the boards,” she said. “We wore them down as the game went on and broke down their post players.”

Sydney Davies had six points,  Myla DeBoef, Emily Wight, and Jessie Swackhammer five each, and Marshall four.  Lauren Kennedy led the Centurions with an eight-point game.

The Panthers had a 5-2 mark in the regular season, then swept through the playoffs in three games. Early on, the pressure associated with the program’s recent success seemed a lot to handle for a team that had to replace nearly every one of last year’s starters. A loss to the Centurions before Thanksgiving and a one-point setback to St. Theresa later in the month had the girls thinking long and hard about their fortunes.

“We really had to sit down and look at what we were doing and why things were happening,” said Swackhammer. “We had to look at it from a different perspective and redirect. We realized that once our defence is good, our offence comes together.”

Marshall said the losses brought the team together and they all knew they had to work harder. She also said they made a decision not to let the pressure wear them down.

“I think we put that in the back of our heads. If we let it get to us, we’d kind of break down. We just put that behind us and tried our hardest.”

The result, Leavitt said, was “a completely different team” that improved greatly and surpassed higher-ranked playoff opponents with the brand of basketball it played.

Garden, who has mentored some good teams on the court, had high praise for this group.

“Each championship is great, so it’s hard to compare them, but this group of girls has grown and improved more than any other team I’ve coached,” he said.

Team effort – The Bay of Quinte-champion PECI Senior Basketball Panthers… Front row, from left: Mikalya Leavitt, Vanessa Wilton, Madalynn Snider, Sydney Davies; back row, from left: Rob Garden, Ernie MacMillan, Trinity Roche, Jessie Swackhammer, Emily Wight, Chloe Marshall, Myla DeBoef, Emma Lamorre, Becca McHugh, Alexa Prinzen. (Adam Bramburger/Gazette staff)

“There’s no drama. There’s no in-fighting. They work hard. It’s the progress. Two years ago, they couldn’t crack the Bay of Quinte final so they played rep, they did summer leagues, they went to camps, and it paid off. From a growth standpoint, they have come a long way. They really understand the game of basketball now, they get each other, and they’re starting to figure out their roles.”

He was impressed by how the battle-hardened leaders figured out how to play in big moments and how, collectively, the Panthers adjusted their strategy between Nicholson and Centre Hastings — strong teams that play very different styles — in two days.

“It separates good teams from great teams when you can make adjustments,” he said.

The Panther players said that’s a result of a team-first mentality.

“That was probably my best and most enjoyable year of basketball. Our team is really close and we do lots together,” Leavitt said.

Added Marshall: “We built ourselves up as a team to make it here. We came together.”

There’s a distinct realization there’s more to be done. The Panthers host the COSSA AA championship Thursday. They’ll play the Adam Scott Lions at 10 a.m. with hopes of reaching the final at 3 p.m.  The Bayside Red Devils will play the Holy Cross Hurricanes at 11:30 in the other semifinal.

“I hope we play both games and get to OFSAA,” Marshall said. “We’re going to have to keep playing our hardest. We’re going to put on our best press and we realize what we have to capitalize on.”