Beating a team three times in a season is difficult enough.
To have to beat that same team a fourth time in order to claim a regional championship on that opponent's home floor is about as daunting a task as there is.
Oblong High School's boys' basketball team was up to the challenge though Saturday night, as the Panthers put together a second-half rally to run past Dieterich, 61-46, to claim the Class 1A Dieterich Regional championship.
"This was the fourth time we've played these guys and I told the boys they had nothing to lose coming after us after we had beat them three times," OHS head coach Brent Harper said. "I told them if we let them hang around they are good enough to beat us. We finally stepped it up in the third, got locked in and started to play our game."
Saturday's title game started out much like the first three meetings between the two teams, which were decided by a combined 10 points - all of them Oblong wins.
Although there were no ties, there were 10 lead changes in a see-saw first half. Oblong struck first when Anthony Johnson converted a steal into a layup at the 6:43 mark for a 2-0 OHS lead. Dieterich's Tanner Traub countered with a three-pointer 40 seconds later to put Dieterich on top, but a layup by Jared Mayhew put Oblong back in front, 4-3, with 5:27 remaining. A putback by Dalton Hinterscher gave Dieterich a 5-4 lead with 4:53 to play, but a runner by Gerald Richardson and a tip-in of a Richardson miss by Johnson gave Oblong an 8-5 lead with 2:57 left. Hinterscher followed with a baseline jumper 20 seconds later, then Alex Bohnhoff made two free throws with 36.9 seconds left to put Dieterich back in front, 9-8, but Collin Meese turned a steal into a layup with five seconds left to give Oblong a 10-9 edge at the end of the first period.
Dieterich regained the lead, 11-10, on a layup by Hinterscher at the 7:12 mark, but a putback by Kurt Knollenberg started an 8-0 OHS run. Knollenberg would follow with a three-pointer, Meese hit a jumper from the top of the key and Johnson added a free throw to give Oblong an 18-11 lead with 5:27 to go. However, the Panthers would go cold for the rest of the half, as they scored just one more point the rest of the period, while Dieterich put together an 11-1 run to take a 22-19 lead at halftime.
Koert Mehler knocked down a baseline jumper to start the third quarter to get the Panthers within one, but Dieterich scored the next six points to extend their lead to eight, 29-21, with 6:06 to play. Dieterich maintained their eight point lead at 33-25 with 4:15 to play and seemed to be in control, but the Panthers were far from finished, as a 9-0 run in the next 1:30 put Oblong back on top.
Johnson drove baseline for a layup to start the run, then drained a three-pointer after a steal to close the gap to 33-30 with 3:27 remaining. Two free throws by Richardson closed the gap to one, then after Richardson stole the ensuing inbounds pass, he found a cutting Johnson for a reverse layup to put the Panthers ahead, 34-33, with 2:45 left.
A three-pointer by Traub and two free throws from Austin Bushue gave Dieterich the lead back, 38-34, with 1:25 to play, but Knollenberg drilled a three-pointer from the left wing at the 1:00 mark, then hit another with six seconds left to put Oblong up 40-38 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Panthers carried that momentum through the rest of the game, as they outscored Dieterich 21-8 over the final eight minutes to pull away for the win. A putback by Johnson to start the period gave Oblong a 42-38 lead, then after a free throw by Dieterich's Brandon Westjohn made the score 42-39, Oblong embarked on a 13-0 run to put the game away. Two baskets by Meese started the run, then after a two-minute dry spell by both teams, Johnson hit a layup at the 3:30 mark to push the lead to 48-39. Knollenberg hit yet another three-pointer from the left corner with 2:52 left to make the score 51-39, then Richardson converted a lob from Knollenberg after a Dieterich turnover for a layup and Richardson added two free throws to make the score 55-39 with 2:08 to play.
Traub hit three free throws with 1:51 left to stop the run, but the damage was already done, as those free throws ended an almost six-minute scoreless drought for Dieterich. Oblong was able to knock down all six of their free throw attempts in the final 1:33 of the game to seal the win and the championship.
"It was a tale of two halves," Harper said. "Defensively, I was happy with what we were doing in the first half, but for a while I wasn't sure which color jersey we were throwing to. But, the boys settled down in the second half. We got some steals, hit some shots and were able to pull away."
Oblong was able to dig in on the defensive end, while at the same time picking it up offensive end in the second half to turn the tide.
The Panthers held Dieterich to 32 percent shooting for the game (14-44), including 10-26 from two-point range (39 percent) and 4-18 from three-point range (22 percent). Meanwhile, Oblong made 22-56 shots from the floor (39 percent), which included a 17-42 effort from inside the arc (41 percent) and 5-14 from long distance (36 percent). But, the Panthers made 14-26 field goals in the second half (54 percent), including 4-7 from three-point range (57 percent).
Oblong did struggle a bit at the free throw line, making 12-21 foul shots (57 percent), while Dieterich was a stellar 14-16 at the charity stripe (88 percent).
The Panthers outrebounded Dieterich 45-27 and committed 14 turnovers, including just four in the second half, while Dieterich turned it over 19 times, 11 of which came after halftime.
Johnson led Oblong with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four steals, but it was the sharpshooting of Knollenberg that sparked the Panthers' comeback. He knocked down 4-5 three-pointers in the game and totaled 14 points, along with four rebounds, one steal and one assist.
"Kurt stepped up big off the bench," Harper said. "He knocked down some huge shots under pressure, which gave us a spark and got us going. He is capable of scoring a lot of points when he gets his feet set like he did tonight. Anthony struggled early with his jump shot, but he took charge late and got to the rack a few times."
Richardson posted 10 points, three steals, two rebounds, one assist and one blocked shot for the Panthers, Meese contributed eight points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals, Koert Mehler netted six points, six rebounds and one assist, Jared Mayhew added four points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots and Brody Allen tossed in two points.
"Gerald stepped up big defensively for us and got some steals and made some big shots," Harper said. "Collin has been incredible keeping Hinterscher under control. He takes pride in his defense and works his tail off."
Traub led Dieterich with 19 points, three rebounds and three steals, while Hinterscher posted 12 points, four rebounds, four steals and one assist, but he was 0-6 from three-point range.
For the Panthers it is their second straight regional championship after ending a 52-year championship drought last season.
"This feels really good," Harper said. "To repeat as something makes it very special. This group of kids deserve it, especially the seniors. They are a great group of kids. We hit some bumps in the road, but we were still able to get it done."
Oblong (20-11) advances to the Altamont Sectional, where they will play top-ranked and defending state champ Woodlawn in the semifinals Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. The two teams met in the championship game of the Red Hill Sectional last season, with Woodlawn pulling out a 53-51 win on their way to a state title.
"Hopefully we can reverse that this year," Harper said. "They have all the expectations on them with being No. 1 and the defending champ. Maybe we can play a little looser than we did tonight, step up to the challenge and see what happens."