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 Season Was a Learning Experience for Panthers

March 12, 2008 - After winning their season opener against Tri High back in November, Knightstown’s varsity boys basketball team couldn’t get a shot to fall in regulation and lost in overtime to Wes-Del. The next weekend, the Panthers watched a Union County player drive the ball in for a last-second lay-up to defeat Knightstown at the buzzer.

That’s the same way the season ended two weeks ago. Eastern Hancock’s Robbie Roland brought an abrupt halt to the Panther tourney run with a gutsy drive for a lay-up a split-second before the horn sounded, defeating Knightstown 50-49.

On paper, it doesn’t look like that much changed for the Panther basketball team in the slightly more than three months they had been playing under new coach John Howell.

But the game isn’t played on paper, and the Panthers more than showed they improved dramatically on the court throughout the season. Knightstown lost to 13 teams this season, and every one of those teams had a winning record and a solid core of veterans returning from the previous season. The combined record of the teams that beat Knightstown this year was 186-125, and three of those squads went on to win sectional titles.

Consistency and maturity were some the biggest obstacles on the Panther roster for Howell to overcome, if not the fact that he inherited a team that went 1-21 the year before and had no clue how to win a game down the stretch.

The coach was up to the challenge, and in overall picture, apparently the team was, too. They came within a nanosecond of winning a sectional title in the most unlikely of seasons, losing to Eastern Hancock on a shot just before the buzzer.

It was a rough beginning with that 1-21 black cloud hanging overhead, a new coach, and an entirely new man-to-man defensive system that had some of the kids confused on the first day of practice.

“It was tough coming in with a new coach and an entirely new system,” Howell said. “The system was a man-to-man defense and a motion offense, and they were used to playing a zone and a weave offense. I though the kids did a good job of buying in to the system and working hard on it. We won nine games and obviously there were a lot more that we could have won if we could have ever found that go-to guy to take charge down the stretch.”

The season was a struggle most of the way. The three seniors on the squad, Bryce Cole, Jordan Bearhope and Kyle Buckley, all had limited varsity expereience. The bulk of the scoring would come from underclassmen. Most of the teams on the schedule were experienced with multiple veterans at several positions.

The Panthers started the season off on a positive note, defeating Tri in the opener 52-31. The win looked good on paper, but the Titans would finish the season with just a 1-20 record. Knightstown then lost its next three games, although they should have won two of those.

The Panthers fell to Wes-Del in overtime, 68-63, and lost on a last-second shot to Union County, 53-52. The next night they were blown away at Wapahani 83-35, and stood 1-4 on the season.

After beating Cambridge City Lincoln in overtime, Knightstown lost three straight to Lapel, Eastern Hancock and Triton Central. At 2-6, the Panthers had lost to six teams who would all go on to have a winning record.

In the holiday tournament the Panthers avenged an earlier loss to Union County, blew a big lead in falling to Guerin Catholic (17-6 for the season), and defeated Lincoln for a second time. That gave Knightstown a 4-7 record at the midway point of the season, and things were looking up.

But last-second losses to North Decatur (59-57) and Centerville (63-60) dropped the team to 4-9. From that point on, the Panthers went 5-5 rest of the season, never winning back-to-back games, but never losing two straight again either.

Every team that beat Knightstown this season went on to have a winning record, and the Panthers lost close games to three teams that won a sectional title this season (Eastern Hancock, Rushville and Waldron). The Panthers lost 11 games by 10 points or less this season, including four by three points or less.

“We obviously could have had a much better record,” Howell said. “I think we lacked the mental toughness needed to win those close games and that sometimes happens with young teams.”

The Panthers ended the season with a 9-14 record, going 5-5 over their last 10 games. Sophomore Zach Apollos took a huge step forward this year, leading the team with a 14.9 scoring average and also grabbing 9.4 rebounds per contest. He had a game-high of 31 points, and his rebounding high was 14. Zach had 11 double-doubles.

His younger brother, freshman Seth Apollos, finished with an average of 8.8 points and almost five rebounds per game. He hit double figures in 10 games, with a high outing of 20 points against Union County.

Those two will return next season, along with junior Kenton Lane (7.9 points), who scored 20 points against Centerville following an 18-point effort against North Decatur. Junior Brice Biehl (7.5 points) scored double figures six times, and his high game was 15 against Union County in the holiday tourney.

Sophomore Colton Kinnaman (5.9 points) will be back, and his high game was 13 against Blue River. Those players were the primary starting five Howell utilized when tempers didn’t regulate some of them to the bench.

“We showed a lot of improvement over the season, and we did win nine games,” Howell said.

Also returning are several other players who had key roles in the teams’ improved record this season. Junior Anthony Hibbert scored an average of 3.4 points off the bench and had 10 points against Wes-Del. He usually provided good defense against the other team’s top scorer. That gives Knightstown six returning players who have scored in double figures this season.

Junior Jordan Back and sophomore Travis Titus also saw varsity time this year, giving Knightstown eight varsity players returning.

Add to that formula an influx of potential from a 17-3 junior varsity squad, and the Panthers should be the overwhelming favorite to win Sectional 42 next season. Howell is very much aware of the potential the team has for the coming years.

“We lost three seniors who contributed this year, but we’ll have eight kids back on our varsity,” Howell said. “We’re going to have some kids step up from a good junior varsity team, so it will be a very interesting summer to see who works hard and improves their game. I’m excited about the depth we’ll have.

“I know there are a lot of people in the community excited about the amount of talent we have here and the expectations are high. Hopefully, the boys are as excited as the community and they realize what they could do with a lot of hard work.”

Howell said he is giving his players a break from basketball right now, but he will be meeting with every player one-on-one and discussing their weaknesses and potential roles for next season. With eight returning veterans and the potential of as many as 10 junior varsity players fighting for a varsity spot next year, there won’t be enough uniforms to go around. Competition for a spot on the Panther varsity next season will be fierce.

It may come down to who improves the most over the summer months.

“When the spring sports are over we’ll talk to all of the kids about what we think they need to work on and how they can improve their game to be a part of what we’re going to do,” Howell said. “At that point it is probably going to come down to work ethic.

“All of the kids need to continue to work hard and improve. We got better as a team this year, but we never got to where we should have been. We need to develop some mental toughness and maturity, and hopefully some of that will happen over the summer.”

 

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