Jeff Cali Sports Editor email@example.com
Eleven months and three weeks or so ago, the Latta Panthers were battling Haworth in a Class 2A State championship game. Latta fans won’t soon forget handing out that 58-41 shellacking to win the gold ball.
Friday’s night’s rematch in a 2A Area Tournament title tilt inside Byng’s Bill Koller Fieldhouse was much closer.
Latta 6-5 junior Derek Epperly scored the go ahead basket after a nice spin move to shake his defender with 1:10 to play in the game and Brogan Cantrell hit two free throws with 19 seconds left for good measure to help the Panther to a thrilling 54-51 victory.
The second-ranked Panthers are headed back in the 2A State Tournament to defend their title with a 24-4 record while No. 3 Haworth fell to 25-4 and was scheduled to meet No. 15 Christian Heritage in an area consolation game Saturday night.
“They’re the third-ranked team for a reason. They’re really good and they’re really experienced,” said Latta head coach Donnie Husband. “It was a heckuva basketball game. I’m so proud of my guys for how they hung in there. It looked like they were going to turn the tide on us, but we just kept playing and really played with a lot of poise for the most part down the stretch.”
Latta led by as many a 10 in the first half, but the second half was a seesaw affair throughout. In the fourth quarter alone there were three ties and three lead changes.
It was only fitting that Epperly made the biggest basket of the game after turning in arguably the biggest game of his prep career. He finished with a game-high 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, hit four free throws and grabbed seven rebounds.
“On that basket there at the end, he just makes a heckuva play. We’ve known all year he’s had that kind of potential,” Husband said. “We think he’s a good player and we think he’s going to get better. To see him step up in that situation was fun to see.”
After the Epperly basket, Oscar Rivera hit one of two free throws with 19.5 seconds left to get Haworth within 52-51.
Cantrell, who was fouled before the Panthers could inbound the ball while Husband was trying to call time out, gave Latta its three-point cushion with his free shots. Haworth missed two good looks at 3-point shots on the Lions’ next possession and was forced to foul Treston Tully who missed the front end of a one-and-one.
But Rivera’s off balance 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark as Latta held on.
Garcia, who finished with 20 points in a losing cause for Haworth, hit back-to-back buckets early in the fourth quarter to give the Lions their final lead at 44-42. Epperly would answer with two straight baskets of his own to give Latta a 46-44 advantage.
Garcia tied the game at 50-50 on his shot in the post before Epperly again responded with his late basket that helped spearhead Latta to the state tournament.
“That’s kind of happened to us two or three times in the playoffs where it looks like we’re kind of on the ropes a little bit. We’ve been in these situations. We have such high-character kids, and they seem to figure out a way to come out on top.”
Tully would reach double figures with 10 points while Kade Hayes and sharp-shooting reserve Carter Kessinger each hit a pair of 3-pointers and finished with eight points apiece.
Hayden Grimes and Junior Griffin scored a dozen points each for the Lions.
Husband said trips to state never get old.
“I never take them for granted. I enjoy every second of it. I enjoy watching our guys compete and play. I’m just proud to be a part of it,” he said. “I’ve been blessed my entire 13 years here at Latta to have some really good players and to be able to get to do these things.”