There will be a new state champion in Class 1A boys basketball this season, thanks to the Oblong Panthers.
The unranked and unheralded Panthers knocked off defending Class 1A champion and No. 3-ranked Woodlawn, 64-60, Tuesday to advance to the championship game of the Altamont Sectional.
"That felt pretty good," OHS head coach Brent Harper said after the Panthers nearly let a 10-point lead in the final minute get away before holding on for the upset win. "Coming in here, we knew it would be tough. I told the boys we needed maximum effort for 32 minutes and at the end to have no excuses and leave it all on the floor. We knew we could beat them, we just had to show it and we did. But, we also knew after last year we had to stay on them because they never quit."
Woodlawn's ranking did not seem to bother the Panthers, as they outplayed the highly-regarded Cardinals for most of the game.
Oblong used their size to their advantage to establish an early lead, thanks in large part to 6-3 sophomore Jared Mayhew, who scored 10 first-quarter points.
"We felt like we could take advantage of the post and we let Jared go to work in there," Harper said. "We have struggled with inside shots recently, but tonight we made them."
Mayhew opened the scoring with a layup after a dump-down from Anthony Johnson to put the Panthers up 2-0 25 seconds into the game. Woodlawn answered with a bucket on the ensuing possession, but a free throw by Mayhew put Oblong back in front with 6:40 to play. Two free throws by Ty Coleman gave Woodlawn their first lead of the game, 4-3, with 5:16 left, but a driving layup by Koert Mehler and a three-pointer by Collin Meese gave Oblong an 8-4 lead with 3:42 to go. Woodlawn closed to within 10-9 with 2:17 remaining, but Oblong ripped off a 9-2 run over the final 1:20 of the period to take a 19-11 lead after the first eight minutes.
Mayhew started the run with a tip-in of a missed three-pointer by Kurt Knollenberg, then made a jump hook in the lane to make the score 14-9. After Woodlawn scored, Mayhew converted a three-point play after putting in his own miss with 15.9 seconds to go, then Meese hit a layup after Gerald Richardson stole the inbounds pass to complete the run.
The Panthers made their early run despite their leading scorer, Johnson, not scoring in the first period and the senior guard only had two points in the first half.
"We've run into times where teams have keyed on Anthony, but he does such a good job keeping his teammates involved when that happens," Harper said. "That's what makes him a great, all-around player. Plus, we have guys that can score and they stepped up when they needed to."
Woodlawn responded in the second quarter, as the Cardinals started the period on a 12-2 run - which was capped by consecutive three-pointers from Gabe Owens - to give them a 23-21 lead with 4:05 to play.
Undeterred, Oblong came right back, as Richardson drained a three-pointer to put the Panthers back in front, 24-23, with 2:53 to play, then Meese scored inside after receiving a nifty underhand pass from Chase Mendenhall on a fast break to make the score 26-23 with 2:17 remaining. After a Woodlawn basket, Mehler knocked down a three-pointer to push the OHS lead to 29-25 and the Panthers held a 31-27 advantage at halftime.
Johnson opened the third quarter with a baseline jumper to stretch the lead to six, but Owens countered with a three-pointer to get Woodlawn to within 33-30 with 7:25 to go. Johnson answered with a three-pointer of his own, then Richardson followed with two straight hoops to extend the OHS lead to 40-30 with 3:18 left. A three-point play by Meese gave the Panthers a 43-32 lead with 2:19 remaining and they held a 45-35 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
The lead stretched to its biggest of the game, 47-35, on two free throws by Johnson a minute in to the fourth quarter, but Woodlawn quickly got it down to eight with four straight points. Two more free throws by Johnson and a layup by Mayhew got the lead back to 12, 53-41, with 3:39 to play and the Panthers still led by that margin, 57-45, with 1:50 to play.
However, that is when things started to get interesting.
Three straight points by Woodlawn cut the OHS lead to nine, then after a Johnson free throw, Owens scored inside to close the gap to 58-50 with 1:02 remaining. Richardson sank two free throws with 59.2 seconds left, but Jayson Hapeman scored on a putback to make the score 60-52 with 50 seconds to go. Richardson would add one more free throw with 46.5 seconds left, but Kris Harlow followed with a baseline jumper for Woodlawn, then after a steal, Owens banked in a 25-footer to make the score 61-57 with 21.4 seconds left. A free throw by Johnson pushed the lead to 62-57 with 18.1 seconds left, but Hapeman followed by draining a shot from just inside the midcourt stripe to cut the OHS lead to 62-60 with 8.6 seconds left.
Oblong quickly inbounded the ball to Meese, who was fouled with 5.3 seconds left. Meese sank both free throws to seal the win, while Woodlawn's final shot was off the mark, completing the upset victory.
"This is one of the best wins we've had since I've been here," Harper said. "I knew we could win this game. We just had to show up, play hard and do it for 32 minutes. It got real interesting late, but the kids kept their composure late."
Two key areas that aided the Panthers in the win was their physical play inside and their solid defensive effort on the perimeter.
"We've played a lot of 2A teams this year and gotten beat up a few times," Harper said. "But, these kids are used to playing physical and are not afraid to play that way. I think that rattled Woodlawn a little bit."
The Panthers did not allow Woodlawn many good looks at the basket, especially from three-point range. Woodlawn shot just 17-59 from the floor (29 percent), which included 10-33 from two-point range (30 percent) and 7-26 from long distance (27 percent).
"We did the same thing we did last year, but we did a better job tonight," Harper said. "Our perimeter guys did a good job switching, communicating, jumping to the ball and doing the things we had to do. They take a lot of pride in their defense and they gave a great effort tonight."
Meanwhile, Oblong held their own from long range, but did most of their damage inside and at the free throw line. The Panthers made 20-38 field goal attempts (53 percent), including 16-29 from inside the arc (55 percent) and 4-9 from beyond the arc (44 percent). Oblong also made 20-25 free throws in the game (80 percent), including 17-21 in the fourth quarter. Woodlawn also performed well at the charity stripe, making 19-24 foul shots (79 percent).
"The kids stepped up and knocked down free throws," Harper said. "That's what you have got to do to win ball games and we did."
Johnson ended up leading a balanced scoring attack for the Panthers with 17 points, thanks in large part to a 10-12 performance at the free throw line in the fourth quarter. He also had five assists, three rebounds, two blocked shots and one steal.
"At the end of the game, we want the ball in Anthony's hands," Harper said. "He makes smart decisions and is a good free throw shooter."
Mayhew finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots, Meese posted 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and one steal, Richardson totaled 12 points, five rebounds, three steals, two assists and one blocked shot and Mehler netted seven points, two rebounds and one blocked shot.
Owens still led Woodlawn despite 6-20 shooting with 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and one steal, while Harlow posted 11 points, eight rebounds, two assists and one steal and Matt Kennedy netted 10 points and seven rebounds.
Oblong (21-11) advances to their second straight sectional championship game with the win. The Panthers will meet Nokomis in the championship game of the Altamont Sectional Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"One of our goals was to make it farther than last year," Harper said. "We have put ourselves in position to do that and that's all you can ask for."