Jeff Cali Sports Editor email@example.com
Latta — After Latta’s Derek Epperly missed the second of two free throws with 12.4 seconds left in the game, the Panthers were clinging to a two-point lead over Christian Heritage Academy during a tense Class 2A Regional Tournament championship game Saturday night inside the Latta Panther Fieldhouse.
The Crusaders — out of timeouts — hurried the ball down the court. Colton Lindsey took the ball at the top of the key, drove down the lane dished the ball to a wide open Micah Wilson on the right side of the basket. Wilson tossed up the shot, the ball rolled around the rim for what seemed like forever before falling off the side of the rim as time expired, allowing Latta to hold on for the heart-pounding 47-45 win.
The second-ranked Panthers improved to 23-4 on the year and advance to Friday night’s 2A Area Tournament championship in Byng while No. 15 Christian Heritage Academy will ender the area tournament’s consolation bracket at 22-4.
“I was already smelling overtime, I tell you,” said Latta head coach Donnie Husband when asked about the close call at the end. “Usually if you don’t hit free throws in that situation, you put yourself in a bind. It’s a little easier to defend the 3-point line in that situation than it is to defend the two. We put ourselves in a tough situation but sometimes if you work hard things fall your way. Hopefully, we didn’t use it all up tonight.”
Latta led 41-33 heading into the fourth quarter before having to hang on for dear life in the end.
Lindsey converted an old fashioned three-point play to open the fourth, but sharpshooting Latta sophomore Carter Kessinger buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game at the 5:30 mark to again give Latta an eight-point bulge at 44-36.
It was then that the Crusaders began to rally.
Caleb Littlejim sank a pull-up, baseline jumper and followed with a long 3-pointer that trimmed the Latta advantage to 44-41 with 4:08 to play.
After two missed free throws by Latta, Gabe Littlejim hit two free shots following a steal and layup attempt that made it 44-43 with 1:53 remaining.
Kade Hayes hit two big free throws for the Panthers with just 29.3 seconds remaining to make it 46-43. However, Wilson got wide open for a layup with 19.1 showing that again made it a one-point game to set up the exciting finish.
The Crusaders outscored Latta 12-6 in the fourth quarter.
“It seemed like we kind of played to keep from getting beat a little bit instead of trying to play to win. That will usually get you in trouble, but fortunately we were able to hang on and make something good happen,” Husband said.
Kessinger, who never missed, hit a trio of 3-pointers (his final as time was running out) during a huge 22-10 Latta second quarter that helped the Panthers turn an 11-6 deficit into a 28-21 lead at halftime.
“We didn’t play well early again, but we hung in there and played really good in the second quarter and pretty good in the third,” Husband said.
Kessinger’s 4-of-4 showing from beyond the arc gave him 12 points and his team a monumental boost off the bench.
“Every one of them were obviously big,” Husband said. “That’s a pretty nice option to have coming off the bench. He was big-time tonight. We’re not standing here with a win if he’s not on our team.”
Hayes finished with 14 points to lead Latta while Epperly contributed eight. Brady Johnson was next with seven points.
Caleb Littlejim led all scorers with 19 points for the Crusaders while Lindsey just missed double figures with nine points to go with seven rebounds. Gabe Littlejim added seven points and seven rebounds while Wilson finished with five points and eight rebounds off the bench. The much taller Crusaders won the rebounding battle 26-21.
CHA will meet Cordell Thursday at 8 p.m. in Byng in 4A Area Tournament consolation play.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have a huge showdown with No. 3 Haworth Friday at 8 p.m. in the area championship game inside the Bill Koller Fieldhouse. Latta defeated Haworth last year in the 2013 2A state championship game.
Husband is just glad his team now needs to win just one of two games to earn a return trip to the state tournament.
“We were in this situation last year and thank goodness we had two shots at it. It’s going to be a mountain to climb,” he said. “We feel really good about what we accomplished this week because both of these (regional) games were like the area finals. We beat two super teams.”
It will only get tougher Friday night.
“(Haworth is) very well coached and extremely athletic,” he said. “I’m sure it will be an exciting matchup. Last year is last year and this year is this year. He’s got a different club and we have a different club. We’re trying to get back there (to state) and so is he. It should be a lot of fun.”