Jeff Cali Sports Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
Oklahoma City — The Latta Panthers simply wouldn’t be denied.
After a subpar first half that saw them trailing by seven, the Panthers were still down 31-23 after Haworth’s Jerry Threadgill Jr. fast break bucket that followed a steal by Junior Griffin at the halfway point of the third quarter.
Latta had just 12 minutes to turn things around in the Class 2A State championship game that tipped off late Saturday night inside a rockin’ State Fair Arena in Oklahoma City.
As it turns out, the Panthers had the Lions right where they wanted them.
Latta used a giant 20-4 surge to end the third quarter and start the final period en route to a 57-50 come-from-behind victory that made the Panthers state champions for the second consecutive year.
The second-ranked Panthers improved to 27-4 while No. 3 Haworth ended at 28-5.
The repeat party was still on for the Latta boys.
“What a great accomplishment. Two in a row? Jiminy Christmas. Who would have dreamed of something like that?” said Latta head coach Donnie Husband moments after giving his wife, Hollie, a state championship kiss.
“It’s unbelievable for a guy that has spent 30 years of his life dreaming about being here,” he said. “I’ve sat in those stands and thought, ‘Will I ever be one of those guys?’”
Now, he has been one of those guys in back-to-back seasons.
Latta scored eight of the final nine third-quarter points — including four by post player Derek Epperly — to get within 32-31 heading into the fourth period.
While the Latta defense was clamping down — Haworth didn’t hit a field goal during the entire 20-4 game-changing run — the Panthers kept chipping away on offense. Brogan Cantrell hit two free throws to start the fourth quarter, putting Latta in front for the first time since the second quarter at 33-32.
The game was still knotted at 35-35 and still very much hanging in the balance before Latta scored 10 unanswered points. Epperly started that spurt with a basket over 6-6 defender Dorian Threadgill.
Kade Hayes would follow with a strong drive to the basket that put Latta ahead 39-35.
After a Haworth turnover, Carter Kessinger — standing just inches from the out-of-bounds line along the baseline — drained a 3-pointer. Hayden Grimes missed two free shots on the other end, and Hayes promptly fired in another 3-point dagger that saw the eight-point deficit turn into a 45-35 Latta lead with just 3:21 to play.
“The key is we didn’t panic. We haven’t panicked all year long. Maybe if it had gotten late in the game, we would have. We’ve been here so many times, and they’ve been in these tough situations,” Husband said of the comeback.
“Every playoff game we’ve been in has been this way. A play here and a play there kind of teeters it to our side, and we take advantage of it. I thought that’s what happened here,” he continued. “I’m just very proud of our mental toughness and how we handle adversity.”
Hayes — who finished with a game-high 22 points and was named the tournament MVP — hit two free throws and then made a layup after Latta easily beat Haworth's full-court press to give the Panthers their biggest lead of the game at 49-37 with just 2:12 left.
“Oh, my gosh. He’s always been that guy. He’s always been a big-game player. We rely real heavily on him,” Husband said of the big outing by Hayes. “He’s not afraid of the moment, and he’s not afraid to fail. He’s been that guy for us his entire career, since he was a freshman. He’s always made big shots in any big game we’ve won.”
Latta hit just enough free throws (8-of-14) in the final 1:42 to waltz to the finish line. The Panthers finished 23-of-32 from the free-throw line overall, compared to a 7-of-15 showing for Haworth.
The first half saw the Lions jump out to leads of 12-5 and 15-7 in the first quarter.
Hayes then started working on his big night. After a scoreless first period, he scored the first nine points of the second quarter via bookend 3-pointers wrapped around an old-fashioned three-point play that put Latta ahead 16-15.
Latta still led 18-17 before Haworth’s Oscar Rivera put on a personal show of his own by scoring eight straight points. His 3-pointer that followed a steal by Grimes put Haworth on top 25-18. The Lions carried a 26-19 lead into the break that saw Latta hit just 6-of-16 field goals and commit eight turnovers.
“I didn’t think we played very well in the first half. They were mad at themselves, and I wasn’t too happy with them either,” Husband said. “I give Haworth all the credit. We turned the basketball over too much. We took shots that were uncharacteristic for us. We didn’t make that extra pass. And I didn’t think our defense was as intense as it needed to be. We made a lot of foolish mistakes.”
No one in Panther Nation was mad at the end. Far from it. Husband, who was going from one postgame interview to another, was just tickled to be part of a special two-year basketball journey.
“I’m so honored to be their coach at this point. When you get blessed with a special bunch of kids that believe in one another — I’ve had these guys since they were in kindergarten camps — to see them grow into the young men they are and how they play together and believe in one another ... it’s just a tremendous honor to be a part of it,” he said.
Latta’s big second half included a 26-18 fourth-quarter advantage. The Panther also hit a blistering 9-of-13 field goals in the second half and owned a sizable 35-24 rebounding edge in the contest.
Treston Tully scored 13 points for Latta, including a 7-of-8 effort from the free-throw line while Brogan Cantrell just missed double figures with nine points to go with six rebounds.
Epperly added seven points and seven rebounds.
Rivera led Haworth with 18 points but had just five after halftime. Dorian Threadgill hit two 3-pointers in the final seconds and ended with nine points, while Griffin had six points and six steals before fouling out.
Husband said this year’s state title run was decidedly tougher than the 2013 championship campaign.
“There’s no doubt, the second one. The first one was very difficult, and we played great here last year. It was easier road to get here,” he said. “This year we faced six straight teams (in the playoffs) that I thought were state tournament teams. A lot of them were close games, and we were fortunate enough to get by them.
"It’s just a tribute to our kids that they found a win to win those games — bad matchups and everything. We overcame and really grew. We faced a tough road to get to this point.”
But even through all the bumps in the road — which included gritty playoff wins over Stratford, Wewoka and Christian Heritage and two hard-fought victories over Haworth — these Panthers refused to lose.
They wouldn’t be denied another gold ball.